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Harvard marks 375th anniversary with lectures

City libraries will host free talks

Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, launched the lecture series last night at the Cambridge Public Library’s main branch. Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust, launched the lecture series last night at the Cambridge Public Library’s main branch. (JOSH REYNOLDS FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Travis Andersen
Globe Staff / January 11, 2012
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CAMBRIDGE - A fledgling university here was so grateful to receive a gift of 400 books from a clergyman in the late 1630s that it named the place after him.

The minister was John Harvard, and the university now boasts the largest academic library in the world.

And this year, on its 375th anniversary, Harvard is offering a gift in the same spirit with a free lecture series coming to all public libraries in Cambridge and Boston.

That series was launched last night with a lecture from Harvard’s president, Drew Gilpin Faust.

“Many of the happiest moments of my life have been spent in libraries,’’ she said at the Cambridge Public Library’s main branch before starting her talk, “Telling War Stories: Reflections of a Civil War Historian.’’

Faust is the award-winning author of several books on the conflict, including “This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War,’’ which was a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize.

She said that disagreements persist about the fundamental cause and meaning of the war.

“Significant segments of the American population, particularly in the South, continue to reject slavery as the fundamental cause of the war,’’ said Faust, who grew up in Virginia.

She said that many people insist the Civil War was primarily fought over the doctrine of state’s rights, an issue that remains hotly contested in American political discourse.

Faust pointed out that US Representative Ron Paul of Texas has said that President Abraham Lincoln was responsible for an unjust expansion of federal power and that Governor Rick Perry of Texas has invoked secession from the union as a possibility for his state. Paul and Perry are now vying for the Republican presidential nomination.

“It is, in fact, not very difficult to see ourselves reflected in the Civil War’s mirror,’’ Faust said.

Her talk was the first of about 40 lectures, story presentations, and other events that the university is holding at branch libraries between now and the end of May in Boston and Cambridge to celebrate books, the anniversary, and the university’s connection to both cities, Harvard said in a statement.

The series is being called the John Harvard Book Celebration, a reference to the clergyman’s original bequest, the statement said.

As part of the celebration, Harvard plans to donate 400 new books to the cities’ library systems.

Harvard faculty members and alumni will discuss topics ranging from the decline of violence to theater in the 21st century, the university said yesterday.

Scheduled speakers include Steven Pinker, a specialist on language and the mind, and Diane Paulus, the Tony Award-winning artistic director of the Harvard-affiliated American Repertory Theater, the university said.

Harvard has also received commitments from graduates Walter Isaacson, author of a recent biography of Apple cofounder Steve Jobs, and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a university spokeswoman said.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston praised the initiative in a statement released by Harvard.

“Harvard has been an outstanding community partner for 375 years, and I am so pleased that the university has chosen to include the entire Boston community in its anniversary celebration,’’ Menino said.

“This lecture series is an incredible opportunity for residents and families all across Boston to interact with some of the world’s brightest minds at their own neighborhood library,’’ he said.

A listing of scheduled events and locations is available at: http://375.harvard.edu/john-harvard-book-celebration.

Travis Andersen can be reached at tandersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.

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