Exploring Harvard's History

Massachusetts Hall in 1857

An inside look at the University’s new virtual historical tour

By Livia Goldschmitt
Harvard Summer Youth Employment participant, and rising junior at the German International School Boston

With nearly four hundred years since its founding, Harvard undoubtedly has a fascinating history.

This history, the university's path from its founding in 1636 until the present day, is captured for listeners around the world in the Virtual Historical Tour of Harvard offered by the Harvard Visitor's Center.

"This isn't just Harvard's history, but also Boston's history and even America's'', said the Visitor Center and Digital Content Manager, Maggie Dawson. Dawson manages many aspects of the Visitor Center’s operations, especially working with student staff on tours and other special projects.

The Harvard tours on campus are well known to many local residents. But in March 2020, Dawson and her team were confronted with a new challenge: "How can we welcome people to Harvard in the passionate way we have so far, with these new circumstances?" Together they created the virtual student-led tour.

The result that was created undoubtedly meets the challenge.

Harvard has one of the largest libraries in the country, which is in fact just one in a system of libraries on campus. Besides the well-known Widener Library, there is also Schlesinger Library and Radcliffe Library, and all of these are connected online.

Dawson and the students worked with information from all of these sources, to check the information they use in tours, as well as use resources such as pictures, to bring the tour to life.

This assures that during the tour, the audience is given far more than a cursory look at the campus. The origins of buildings covered during the tour are thoroughly explained, as well as modern day functions.

An example of this would be Massachusetts Hall. Built in 1720, it is the second oldest academic building in the country and was originally used as dormitories for soldiers during the American Revolutionary war.

The modern purposes of Massachusetts Hall include the offices for Harvard University's president, as well as the dormitories for 14 freshman students.

The tour is given by those who get daily insight into life at the university—the students. Harvard students hail from over 80 different countries and all of the 50 states. Those giving the tour each come from a different background, while sharing common interests like history and public speaking.

"These students are a part of Harvard's history in the making", said Dawson. "You get to see passionate, genuine people who want to represent their university".

Besides the factual parts of history, the student-guides include anecdotes about student life and the Harvard experience.