Widener Library

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Harry Elkins Widener
Memorial Library
HarvardUniversity WidenerLibrary ExteriorFront c1915 cropped.jpg
At completion, 1915
Country United States
Type Academic
Established 1915
Location Cambridge, Massachusetts
Coordinates 42°22′24.4″N 71°06′59.4″W / 42.373444°N 71.116500°W / 42.373444; -71.116500Coordinates: 42°22′24.4″N 71°06′59.4″W / 42.373444°N 71.116500°W / 42.373444; -71.116500
Branch of Harvard College Library
Items collected Primarily humanities and social sciences
  • 3.5 million (onsite)
  • 1.5 million (offsite)
Access and use
Access requirements Harvard faculty, students & staff
Circulation 600,000 items/year
Website Widener Library

The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, housing some 3.5 million books in its "vast and cavernous"[1] stacks, is the center­piece of the Harvard College Libraries (the libraries of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences) and, more broadly, of the entire Harvard Library system.[2] It honors 1907 Harvard College graduate and book collector Harry Elkins Widener, and was constructed by his mother after his death in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.

Widener Library's holdings, which include works in more than one hundred languages, comprise "one of the world's most comprehen­sive research collec­tions in the humanities and social sciences,"[3] including a number of depart­mental libraries and special collec­tions, such as in the history of science, Islamic studies, and paleogra­phy.

At the building's heart are the Widener Memorial Rooms, displaying papers and mementos recalling the life and death of Harry Widener, as well as the Harry Elkins Widener Collec­tion,[4] "the precious group of rare and wonder­fully interesting books brought together by Mr. Widener",[5] to which was later added one of the few perfect Gutenberg Bibles—​a gift of the Widener family in 1944 and the object, in 1969, of a theft attempt conjectured by Harvard's police chief to have been inspired by the heist filmTopkapi.

The library's 57 miles (92 km) of shelves, along four miles (6 km) of aisles arrayed on ten levels, comprise a "labyrinth" which one student "could not enter without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle." In the 1990s an epidemic of books cut from their bindings was traced to a former library employee preoccu­pied with texts on early Christia­nity in Greek, Latin, and Icelandic.

Campus legends holding that Harry Widener's fate led to institu­tion of an undergrad­uate swimming requirement, and that an additional donation from his mother subsidizes ice cream at Harvard meals, are without foundation.

Tablet in entrance foyer. "With the march of the years the shad­ow of grief will pass, while the great memo­rial will remain", said Senator Lodge at the dedication.[A]


Harvard year­book pho­to­graph of Harry Elkins Widener
Eleanor Widener, son George (l), and archi­tect Horace Trum­bauer in Harvard Yard, c.1912

In 1912 Harry Elkins Widener—​scion of two of the wealthiest fami­lies in America,[9] a 1907 graduate of Harvard College, and an "avid and knowl­edge­able bibliophile"[B]—​died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. His father George Dunton Widener was lost as well, but his mother Eleanor Elkins Widener survived.

Harry Widener's will instruct­ed that his mother, when "in her judgment Harvard Univer­sity shall make arrange­ments for properly caring for my collec­tion of books ... shall give them to said Univer­sity to be known as the Harry Elkins Widener Collec­tion."[C] To enable the fulfillment of her son's wish, Eleanor Widener briefly consid­ered donating an addition to Gore Hall (Harvard's grossly over­bur­dened exist­ing library)[D] but soon determined to give "the whole":[38] a completely new and far larger library building—​"a memorial to my dear son"[18]—​which would (as the formal Deed of Gift recited) "not only house the special collec­tion of her son, but also the general library of Harvard."[38]

A number of stipulations accompanied this gift,[39]:43 including that the building's archi­tects be the firm of Horace Trumbauer & Associ­ates,[40] which had built several mansions for both the Elkins and the Widener families.[39]:27[41]:243 "Mrs. Widener does not give the Univer­sity the money to build a new library, but has offered to build a library satisfactory in external appearance to herself," Harvard presi­dent Abbott Law­rence Lowell confided privately. "The exterior was her own choice, and she has decided architec­tur­al opinions."[10]:361 Much later, Harvard historian William Bentinck-Smith wrote that

To [Harvard officials] Mrs. Widener was a lovely and generous lady whose wealth, power, and remoteness made her a somewhat terrifying figure who must not be roused to annoyance or outrage. Once [construction] began, all financial transactions were the donor's private business, and no one at Harvard ever knew the exact cost. Mrs. Widener was counting on $2 million, [but] it is probable the cost exceeded $3.5 million.[19]:14

Though Harvard awarded Trumbau­er an honor­ary degree on the day of the new library's dedica­tion,[10]:362[42]:147 it was Trumbau­er associ­ate Julian F. Abele who had overall responsi­bility for the building's design.[E]

After Gore Hall was turned into a "pile of stones and rubbish" to make way,[F] ground was broken February 12, 1913, and the corner­stone laid on June 16.[G]

Plan (1915) showing stacks at south (top), east, and west; Wide­ner Memo­ri­al Rooms at center; Main Reading Room at north, with sepa­rate Radcliffe Read­ing Room off Card Catalog Room. Light courts have since been enclosed as additional reading rooms.
Will of Harry Elkins Widener
Removing books from Gore Hall


Main entrance facing Tercentenary Theatre (2011)
Card catalogs, 1915
Main reading room (now Loker Reading Room) in 1915[50]
The "labyrinth" of stacks. Each of the ten lev­els has some 187 rows of shelves[8]:327 dou­bling as a "struc­tur­al ele­ment of [the] build­ing, carry­ing [the] main third floor above and brac­ing [the] walls",[51] mak­ing Wide­ner the last major self-support­ing mason­ry build­ing, with no outer steel frame, built in the US.[10]:362
The stacks under construc­tion. Next-higher tier is vis­i­ble be­cause floor pan­els, sup­port­ed by stacks fram­ework, are not yet installed.

At Harvard's "geographical and intellec­tual heart",[52] directly across Tercentenary Theatre from Memorial Church, the Harry Elkins Wide­ner Memor­ial Li­brary is a hollow rectangle of stone and brick, 250 ft by 200 ft by 80 ft high (76 x 61 x 24 m), "colon­naded on its front by immense pillars with elaborate [Corinthian capitals],[10]:362 all of which stand at the head of a flight of stairs that would not disgrace the capitol in Washing­ton."[53] Above the main door are the hallmarks of great printers of the fifteenth century: Caxton of England; Rembolt of France; Aldus of Italy; Fust and Schöffer of Germany.[54][55]

The east, south, and west wings house the stacks, while the north contains administrative offices and the Loker Reading Room—​which, spanning the entire breadth of the building and some 42 feet (13 m) in both depth and height, was termed by Harvard architec­tur­al historian Bainbridge Bunting "the most ostenta­tious interior space at Harvard."[56]:154 In the building's center, between what were originally two light courts (since enclosed as additional reading rooms) are the Widener Memorial Rooms (see below).


The 320,000-square-foot (30,000 m2)[52] building was dedicated immediately after Com­mence­ment Day exercises on June 24, 1915, as narrated by the Boston Evening Transcript:

Dr. John Warren, university marshal, led the way up the steps of the library, and the seniors then formed a double line, leaving a broad path for the entrance of the dignitaries. Mrs. Widener, who, with her guests, had gone into the library by the west door, was at the main door as the procession approached, and as President Lowell reached her side, she handed him the keys to the building.[6]

The first book formally brought into the new library was the 1634 edition of John Downame's The Christian Warfare Against the Devil, World, and Flesh,[19]:18 believed at the time (though no longer believed) to be the only volume, of those bequeathed to the school by John Harvard in 1636, to have survived the 1754 burning of Harvard Hall.[57]

In the Memorial Rooms the portrait of Harry Widener (commissioned by Eleanor Widener from French painter Gabriel Ferrier)[58] was unveiled, then remarks delivered by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (speaking on behalf of Eleanor Widener) and Lowell.[6] ("There was not a word too much or too little", said the Harvard Alumni Bulletin.)[59]:713 The Transcript continued:

After the ceremony of presenta­tion, the doors were thrown open, and both graduates and under­graduates had an opportu­ni­ty to see the beauties and utilities of this important univer­sity acquisition.[6]

Amenities and deficiencies[edit]

Amenities touted at the building's opening included "telephones, pneumatic tubes, book lifts, book conveyors and passen­ger elevators",[5] as well as "a dining-room and kitchenette for the ladies of the staff".[H] Advertisements for the manufacturer of the building's shelving highlighted its "dark brown enamel finish, harmonizing with oak trim."[51]

Nonetheless certain deficien­cies were noted almost immediately.[39]:107[37]:89 "The need of better toilet facilities has been pressed upon us during the past year by several rather distressing experiences," Widener Superintendent Frank Carney wrote cryptically in 1918.[I] And librari­an Archibald Cary Coolidge wrote to J. P. Morgan, Jr.,

There is something rather humiliating in having to proclaim to the world that we have 300 stalls [i.e. stacks study carrels] which furnish unequalled opportu­ni­ty to the scholar and investigator who wishes to come here, but that in order to use these opportu­ni­ties he must bring his own chair, table and electric lamp.

(A week later Coolidge wrote again: "Your very generous gift [has helped] pull me out of a most desperate situation.")[26]:102 Faculty competition for the seventy[62]:327 coveted private studies, giving direct access to the stacks, has been a long­standing headache for library administrators.[39]:72-75

Later-built tunnels, from the stacks level furthest underground, connect to nearby Pusey Library and Lamont Library.[63] An enclosed bridge connecting to Houghton Library via a Widener window (built after Eleanor Widener's heirs agreed to waive[64]:75 her gift's proscription of any "changes, additions, or alterations to the exterior")[26]:79 was removed in 2004.[65][66]

Collections and stacks[edit]

The ninety-unit Harvard Library system,[10]:361 of which Widener is the anchor, is the only academic library among the world's five "mega­libraries"—​Widener, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, France's Bibliothèque Nationale, and the British Library—​making it "unambigu­ously the greatest univer­sity library in the world," in the words of a Harvard official.[67]

According to the Harvard College Library's own description:

The humanities and social sciences collec­tions of the Widener Library are represented by distinguished holdings in the history, literature, public affairs, and cultures of five continents. Of particular note are the collec­tions of Africana, Americana, European local history, Judaica, Latin American studies, Middle Eastern studies, Slavic studies, and rich collec­tions of materials for the study of Asia, the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and Greek and Latin antiquity. These collec­tions include significant holdings in linguistics, ancient and modern languages, folklore, economics, history of science and technology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology.[J]

Again alone among the "mega­libraries", only Widener allows patrons the "long-treasured privilege" of entering the stacks to browse as they please, instead of requesting books through library staff.[K] Its 3.5 million volumes[52] occupy 57 miles (92 km) of shelves[71] along four miles (6 km) of aisles[72] on ten separate levels divided into three wings each[73]:4—​a "labyrinth" which one student "could not enter without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle."[L] Though until a recent renovation the stacks had little signage—​"There was the expecta­tion that if you were good enough to qualify to get into the stacks you certainly didn't need any help" (as an official put it)[72] so that "learning to [find books in] Widener was like a rite of passage, a test of manhood"[83]—​at times color-coded lines and shoeprints have been applied to the floors to guide the bewildered.[84][85]

As of 1997 the number of volumes reshelved each year was about 600,000.[83] Another 1.5 million Widener items reside offsite (along with 3 million items from other Harvard libraries) at the Harvard Deposi­tory in Southbor­ough, Massachu­setts, from which they are retrieved overnight on request.[39]:170-1

Departmental and special libraries[edit]

The building also houses a number of special libraries in dedicated spaces outside the stacks, includ­ing the Fred N. Robinson Celtic Seminar Library, the Hamilton A.R. Gibb Islamic Seminar Library, the Milman Parry Collec­tion of Oral Litera­ture, the James A. Notopoulos Collec­tion of Modern Greek Ballads and Songs, the Herbert Weir Smyth Classical Library, the English Depart­ment's Francis James Child Memor­ial Library, and collec­tions in the history of science, linguis­tics, Near Eastern languag­es and civiliza­tions, paleogra­phy, and Sanskrit.[86]

The contents of the "Treasure Room", built to hold Harvard's most precious rare books and manuscripts, were transferred to newly built Houghton Library in 1942.[87]:15

Harry Elkins Widener Collection[edit]

Portrait of Harry Elkins Widener in the Memorial Rooms Library. "The portrait, books, flowers, and furnishings reflect an atmosphere of realism", said a visitor, "[as if] Harry Widener still lived among his books."[37] The desk at left was Harry Widener's own.[M]
Widener's stacks frame­work is visible within un­fin­ish­ed walls in this 1913 rear view.[62]
In 1877 Gore Hall (here being razed in 1913) pio­neered the mod­ern "stack"—​​"free-standing iron up­rights, extend­ing unin­ter­rupt­edly from the foun­da­tions to the top floor ... support­ing the entire weight of the floors, roof, shelving, and books"[21]—​"with only enough vacant space to give access to the books ... and depend­[ent] on the build­ing for pro­tec­tion only."[5]

Widener Memorial Rooms[edit]

The central Memorial Rooms—​an outer Rotunda housing memorabilia of the life and death of Harry Widener,[92] and an inner Library displaying the 3300 rare books collected by him—​were described by the Boston Sunday Herald soon after the building's dedication:

The [outer room] is of Alabama marble except the domed ceiling, with fluted columns and Ionic capitals [while the inner] is finished in carved English oak, the carving having been done in England; the high bookcases are fitted with glass shelves and bronze sashes, the windows are hung with heavy curtains, and in glass-covered cases under them are arranged some examples of the auto­graphed presenta­tion volumes which came to Mr. Widener. Handsome chairs and desk make the furnish­ings here, and upon the desks are vases filled with flowers. Flowers will always be a part of the furnish­ings of this room, as the donor ... has arranged that they shall be supplied at regular intervals.[93]

(For many years Eleanor Widener hosted Commencement Day luncheons in the Memorial Rooms.[19]:20 The family underwrites their upkeep,[94] including weekly renewal of the flowers[95]—​originally roses but now carnations.)[N] The Herald continued:

The big marble fireplace and the portrait of Harry Widener occupy a large portion of the south wall. Standing front of the fireplace one may look through the vista made by the doorways, the staircases within and the stairs without and get a glimpse of the green campus.[93]

The same line of sight means that, conversely, "even from the very entrance [of the building] one will catch a glimpse in the distance of the portrait of young Harry Widener on the further wall [of the Memorial Rooms], if the intervening doors happen to be open."[62]:325

In 1920 the university commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint, within the fourteen-foot-high arched panels flanking the entrance to the Memorial Rotunda, two murals giving tribute to the univer­sity's World War I dead.[O] Above the Rotunda entrance is inscribed:

to the memory of  • eleanor elkins rice  • whose noble and edear­ing spirit  • inspired the conep­tion and comple­tion  • of this memo­rial library  • 1938.[100]

(At the library's dedica­tion Eleanor Widener had made the acquaintance of Harvard professor and surgeon Alexander Hamilton Rice, a noted South American explorer who had received an honorary degree earlier in the day,[101] and they married less than four months later.[102] She died in 1937.)[9]

On the building's second floor is a bronze bust, by Albin Polasek, of sculptor and muralist Frank Millet, who died on the Titanic as well.[103]


Bookplate[104] placed in 2504[105] books stolen by a former gradu­ate stu­dent[P]
Overdue notice, 1884. "The librarian begs to say ..."
Catalog card. C denotes Church History and Theology.
Catalog card. Swi denotes Swiss History & Literature.
Catalog card. Scan denotes Scandinavian History & Literature.
Catalog card. Heb denotes Hebraica.
WidenerLibrary HarvardUniversity Springtime.jpg

The works displayed in the Memorial Rooms comprise Harry Widener's collec­tion at the time of his death, "major monuments of English letters, many remarkable for their bindings and illustrations or unusual provenance":[19]:9 Shakespeare first folios;[10]:362 a copy of Poems written by Wil. Shake-speare, gent. (1640) in its original sheepskin binding;[110] an inscribed copy of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson; Johnson's own Bible;[94] first editions, presenta­tion copies, and similarly valuable volumes of Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Blake and George, Isaac, and Robert Cruikshank;[4] the petty cash book kept by Dickens as a young law clerk.[111]

Book collector and dealer George Sidney Hellman, writing soon after Harry Widener's death, commented on

the excellence of his technical knowl­edge ... His enthusiasm as a collector and his winning person­ali­ty ... afforded many opportunities of obtaining treasures whose acquisition cannot be explained alone on the basis of the wealth which he commanded. Had he not perished in the Titanic catastrophe, beyond question ... his library would surely have eventually become one of the greatest collec­tions of books in modern times. [He] was not satisfied alone in having a rare book or a rare book inscribed by the author; it was with him a prerequisite that the volume should be in immaculate condition.[111]

"He died suddenly, just as he was beginning to be one of the world's great collectors," said the Harvard Alumni Bulletin. "They formed a young man's library, and are to be preserved as he left it"[112]—​except that the Widener family has the exclusive privilege of adding to it.[Q] By far the most valuable work in the collec­tion is Harvard's "greatest typographical treasure"[87]:17—​one of the only thirty-eight perfect copies extant[113] of the Gutenberg Bible.[114] Purchased while Harry was abroad by his grandfather Peter A. B. Widener (who intended to surprise Harry with it after the Titanic docked in New York)[94] it was donated to the Collec­tion by the Widener family in 1944.[R] (Like all Harvard's valuable books, works in the Widener Collec­tion may be consulted by researchers demonstrating a bona fide research need.)[S]

Gutenberg Bible theft[edit]

On the night of August 19, 1969 an attempt was made to steal the Gutenberg Bible, valued at $1 million.[119] The would-be thief hid in a lavatory until after closing, then made his way to the roof, from which he descended via a knotted rope to a Memorial Room window, which he broke into. But after smashing the Gutenberg's display case and placing its two volumes in a knapsack, he found it impossible to reclimb the rope carrying the 70-pound (32 kg) booty.[70]:D

Eventually he fell some 50 feet (15 m)[87]:45 to the pavement of one of the light courts, where (despite landing on the knapsack)[70]:D he lay semicon­scious[119] until his moans were heard by a janitor.[87]:45 He was found about 1 a.m.,[120] "consid­er­a­bly the worse for his adventure",[70]:D with injuries including a fractured skull.[119] "It looks like a profes­sion­al job all right, in the fact that he came down the rope," commented Harvard Police Chief Robert Tonis. "But it doesn't look very profes­sion­al that he fell off."[119] Tonis specu­lated that the attempt may have been modeled on a similar caper depicted in the 1964 filmTopkapi.[120]

Only the books' bindings (which are not original) were damaged.[119] Since the incident only one or the other Bible volume is on display at any given time[70]:E and a replica has been substituted at times of heightened security concern.[121]

Swim-requirement and ice-cream legends[edit]

A Harvard legend holds that, to ensure no other Harvard man would share her son's fate, Eleanor Widener insisted that future graduates be required to demonstrate an ability to swim.[T] "Among the many myths relating to Harry Elkins Widener, this is the most prevalent", says the Harvard Univer­sity Library's "Ask a Librarian" service:

A review of records in the Harvard Archives indicates that there have been swimming requirements at various times in Harvard history, but none were related in any way to Mr. Widener or the gift of the library to Harvard by his mother ... [As Bentinck-Smith][19]:21–22 wrote, "There is absolutely no evidence in the President's papers, or the faculty's, to indicate that [Harry Widener's mother] was, as a result of the Titanic disaster, in any way responsi­ble for [any] compulsory swimming test."[125]

Another story, holding that Eleanor Widener donated a further sum to ensure the perpetual availability of ice cream (purportedly Harry Widener's favorite dessert) in Harvard dining halls, is also without foundation.[122][124]

"The Slasher"[edit]

Around 1990, empty bindings stripped of their pages began to appear in the Widener stacks. Eventually some 600 mutilated books were discovered, the vandal preferring works on early Christianity in Greek, Latin, or unusual languages such as Icelandic.[69]

Notes left at Widener, and later at Northeastern Univer­sity libraries, threatened library workers with graphically described mutilations, instructed that $500,000 be left in a Northeastern library, and demanded that Northeastern "terminate all Jew personnel". Other notes directed that $1 million be left in the Widener stacks: "pUt THe mONEy FucKer BEhiNd THE eLevATOR on D WEST in THE basemENT WhERE tHe 1,000,000.00 dollaRS IN rare GreEK bOOks wAS slASHEd ApARt MIGNE GREEK PATROLOGIA." The FBI staked out these "ransom drops" without result.[126]

In 1994 police connected an incident at Northeastern, in which a library worker there (a former Widener employee) was caught stealing chemistry books, with the fact that chemistry texts had been among the works mutilated at Widener.[69] Officials found "a kind of renegade reference room" in the worker's basement,[127] includ­ing library books, piles of ripped-out pages, a microfilm camera, and hundreds of unusable microfilms he had haphaz­ardly made of books he had destroyed.[126] At trial "The Slasher" said his acts were revenge for the eighteen months he had been detained, in a state psychiatric hospital, after expiration of a six-month jail term he had received for a minor offense.[126]


A $97 million renovation completed in 2004—​the first since the building opened[128]—​added fire suppression and environ­men­tal control systems, upgraded wiring and communica­tions, enclosed the light courts to create reading rooms, and remodeled various public spaces.[72] "Claustro­pho­bia-inducing" elevators were replaced,[85] the bottom shelves on the lowest stacks level were removed in recognition of chronic seepage problems,[128] Widener's "olfactory nostal­gia ... actually the smell of decaying books" was addressed,[129] and unrestricted light and air—​seen as desirable when Widener was built but now considered "public enemies one and two for the long-term safety of old books"—​were brought under control.[72]

The work was complicated by the terms of Eleanor Widener's gift, which forbade that "structures of any kind [be] erected in the courts around which the said building is constructed, but that the same shall be kept open for light and air".[26]:79[39]:42 The need to relocate each of the building's 3.5 million volumes twice—​first to temporary locations, then back, as work proceeded aisle by aisle—​was turned to advantage, so that by the end of the renova­tion related materials in the library's two parallel classifica­tion systems—​the older "Widener" system,[U] and the Library of Congress system adopted in the 1970s[130]:256[39]:159—​were physically adjacent for the first time.[71][85] The chart showing the floor and wing location, within the stacks, of each subject classifica­tion was revised sixty-five times during construction.[72]

The project received the 2005 Library Building Award from the American Library Associa­tion and the American Institute of Architects.[131]


  1. ^ [6] Across the vestibule a matching tablet reads: this library  • erected  • in loving memory of  • harry elkins widener  • by his mother  • eleanor elkins widener  • dedicated  • june 24 1915.[7] In the inner entrance hall an inscription alludes to Ecclesi­as­ti­cus 33:17: harry elkins widener  • a.b.1907  • loved the books  • which he had collected  • and the college  • to which he bequeathed them  • "he laboured  • not for himself only  • but for all those  • who seek learning."  • this memorial  • has been placed here by his classmates.[8]:672
  2. ^ [10]:361 Harry Widener had belonged to both the Bibliophile Society of Boston[11] and the Grolier Club,[12] "the most important club of [bibliophiles] in the world. The late J. P. Morgan had sent word ... that he would like Harry made a member. The question of a seconder was waived; it was understood that Mr. Morgan's endorsement of his protégé's qualifica­tions was sufficient."[13]
  3. ^ [14] According to a friend's reminiscences, not long before Harry Widener died he had said, "I want to be remembered in connec­tion with a great library, [but] I do not see how it is going to be brought about."[13] After his death Eleanor Widener wrote to Abbot Lawrence Lowell ("an acknowl­edged expert on world politics and political theory",[15][16] and Eaton Professor of the Science of Government[17] until he became Harvard's president soon after Harry Widener graduated),[15] "My dear son Harry was a great admirer of yours & often spoke of the pleasure he had while in your classes. He loved Harvard & on our last voyage home, Mr. Frank Millet was a fellow passenger, & he & Harry would sit up very late talking of their love & ambition for the Univer­sity."[18]
  4. ^ Alarms had been issuing for many years about the obsolescence of Gore Hall, constructed 1838–41 (when Harvard owned 44,000 volumes) and declared full in 1863.[19]:5 Despite a substantial addition in 1876[20] (pioneering "one of the most notable inventions of the 19th century", the bookstack)[21] and another in 1907,[20] by the turn of the century Gore was "disgracefully inadequate",[22]:276 with dormitory basements pressed into service as overflow storage[23] for the school's 600,000 books.[24]

    Gore was Harvard's first purpose-built library building, but had been awkwardly modeled on the University of Cambridge's King's College Chapel:[25]

    It is unsuitable for its object. The old stack was modeled after an English chapel ... no amount of tinkering can make it really good ... hopelessly over­crowded ... leaks when there is a heavy rain ... intolerably hot in summer ... books are put in double rows and are not infrequently left lying on top of one another, or actually on the floor ...[26]:51–2

    So cramped was Gore that each seated reader blocked access to "several hundred, in some alcoves 1,000 or 1,500 volumes, to get at which it is necessary for the occupant to rise, move the chair, frequently the table, and remain standing till the steps are adjusted, the book is found, and sometimes even consulted; and to replace everything before resuming work."[27] Electric lighting installed after an 1895 fireproofing[28][29] constituted Gore's first artificial illumina­tion of any kind. Prior to this "the Corporation that built Gore Hall were well aware of its inflamma­ble quality, and from the beginning [had] made the regulation that no lights should ever be used in the building";[30] an 1885 visitor described students "slowly, and, as it seemed, reluctantly, leaving the building" as darkness fell on a winter afternoon.[31]

    Harvard Librarian Justin Winsor concluded his 1892 Annual Report by writing, "I have in earlier reports exhaust­ed the language of warning and anxiety, in represent­ing the totally inade­quate accommoda­tions for books and readers which Gore Hall affords. Each twelve months brings us nearer to a chaotic condition."[32]:15 This linguistic exhaus­tion was apparently literal, for in his 1894 report Winsor did little more than quote himself: "What I have repeatedly said about the insuffi­cien­cy of Gore Hall for the uses of the Library, I can only repeat with renewed emphasis: 'I have exhausted the language of warning and anxiety ...'"[33]:177

    In some respects it was Winsor himself who had created this emergency,[23] for he had long sought "to make the library the focus of the intellec­tual life of the college [in light of the emerging] system of instruc­tion which constantly impels its students to independent investiga­tion". It was for Winsor "a fundamental principle that books should be used to the largest extent possible and with the least trouble",[34] so that during his tenure as librarian Gore Hall became a very different place from what it had been during his own days as a student at Harvard, when it had been open

    six hours a day for the first four secular days of the week, and four hours on Friday ... Seniors and Juniors apply for books on Monday and Thursday, Sophomores on Tuesday, Freshmen on Wednesday.[35]

    In 1903 the Harvard Graduates Magazine complained that while "only the Congressional Library and the Boston Public Library surpass [Harvard's collec­tion], what avails this wealth of material, if it be not properly housed? As well not possess, as to be powerless to use what you possess." Gore was dark, the staff worked under "sweat-shop" conditions, and "open-work iron floors render quiet impossi­ble ... the mud on the boots of the student above drops onto the head of the student below ... Catalogu­ing falls behind, for there is not sufficient room to seat the cataloguers."

    The situation was exacerbated by Harvard's "generous policy of serving scholars every­where ... The number of writers and investi­gators who come to Cambridge to consult its treasures constantly grows ..." And though in an earlier era "the library was used by compara­tively few, with the develop­ment of the elective system and of higher courses in research, access to books [had become] as indispen­sable for students in the literary branches as laboratories are to scientific students." As a result,

    other colleges—​younger, smaller, less richly endowed—​profiting by the methods organized at Harvard, have now outstripped us in capacity for useful­ness ... Columbia, Princeton, Cornell, and the Univer­sity of Wisconsin have now each a million dollar building. We can certainly rejoice for them, but what can we say of our­selves? ... There are throughout the country rich men, looking for fit objects for benefac­tion. It ought not to be difficult to persuade one of these that in providing a library for Harvard he would be doing a work of national benefit.[23]

    In 1910 a committee of architects drew up a plan for replacement of Gore in stages:

    As an alternative to a completely new building, one stack addition after another might be added to Gore ... on three sides of a quadrangle with a court in the center. Eventually Gore Hall would be removed and the main façade of the new building would form the final side of a quadrangle.[20]

    Andrew Carnegie was approached (via J. P. Morgan) to fund the project, though without success. In May 1911 the Boston American (published by disgraced Harvard dropout William Randolph Hearst)[36] carried a mock advertisement: "Wanted—​a millionaire. Will some kind millionaire please give Harvard Univer­sity a library building? Tainted money not barred. Mr. Rockefeller, take notice. Mr. Carnegie, please write."

    "The committee's Beaux Arts design, with its massiveness and symmetry, offered monumen­tal­ity with nothing more particular to monumen­tal­ize than the aspira­tions of the modern univer­sity", Biel has written—​until Harry Widener died and "through delicate negotia­tion, [Harvard's librarian Archibald Cary Coolidge and its president Abbot Lawrence Lowell] convinced Eleanor Widener that the most eloquent tribute to Harry would be an entire library rather than a rare book wing."

    Trumbauer and Abele's design largely followed the committee's outline, though with the committee's central circula­tion room replaced by the Memorial Rooms.[37]:88–9

  5. ^ [40] Horace Trumbauer "had no rivals when it came to tempting clients to spend immodest sums", wrote Wayne Andrews,[19]:16 and Biel said that he had "made his name and fortune by knowing that 'only a magnifi­cent setting could hope to satisfy an American with a magnifi­cent income,' and he had already imparted such magnifi­cence to the Widener and Elkins mansions and an assortment of other palaces ... [He] knew who his client was, so he gave elaborate attention to memorial­izing Harry in style" in the Memorial Rooms.[37]:89 Nonetheless Trumbau­er was extremely shy, and sensitive about his lack of formal education. "He had literally to be dragged to Cambridge and dressed in his academic gown by Mrs. Widener for the gradua­tion ceremonies in June 1915, when Harvard awarded him his only honor­ary degree, a master of arts."[41]:333

    Sources disagree as to whether the building's style is "Beaux-Arts",[43] "Georgian",[44]:57[45]:457 "Hellenistic",[46]:281 or "the austere, formalistic Imperial [or 'Imperial and Classical'] style displayed in the Law School's Langdell Hall and the Medical School Quadrangle".[10]:361

    Eleanor Widener was extremely sensitive to confusion over the circumstances of her gift, which began with early reports that her father-in-law P. A. B. Widener was the donor of the projected library.[18] She wrote to Lowell, "I want emphasized ... that the library is a memorial to my dear son, to be known as the 'Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library,' given by me & not his grandfather as has been so often stated." Years later her second husband insisted that Lowell do his best "to see that in all official reports, etc. the Library is referred to as the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library?—​Widener! Not one cent of Widener money, one second of Widener thought, nor one ounce of Widener energy were expended on either the conception or construction of the Library."[19]:15

  6. ^ [19]:13 A six-foot-square bronze tablet, featuring a bas relief of Gore Hall, is at Widener's northwest corner. Its inscription reads in part: on this spot stood  • gore hall  • architect richard bond  • supervisor daniel treadwell  • built in the year 1838  • in honor of christopher gore  • class of 1776  • fellow of the college, overseer, benefactor  • governor of the commonwealth  • senator of the united states  • the first use of modern book-stacks was in this library ...[47][48]
  7. ^ Because a cold prevented Eleanor Widener from attending the groundbreaking, Harry Widener's brother George did the ceremonial digging, the frozen ground softened in advance by a two-day bonfire.[26]:80 Four months later Eleanor Widener, using a silver trowel, buried in the cornerstone an inscribed silver tablet; the morning's Boston and New York newspapers; photographs of herself, Harry Widener, and Harry's father George Dunton Widener; newspapers reporting the February ground­breaking; and United States coins ranging in value from one cent to twenty dollars.[49]
  8. ^ [8]:676 In the basement (later converted to additional shelving as stacks Levels C and D)[60] were
    the dynamos which run the five elevators and two book-lifts, the compressed air machinery for the pneumatic tubes, the dynamo and fan for the vacuum-cleaning system, a pump connected with the steam-heating apparatus, enormous fans which pump warm air into the Reading-Room and the stack, a filter through which passes all water which enters the building, and the connec­tions for electric light and power. The building is to be heated by steam, conveyed through a tunnel from the plant of the Elevated Railroad Company, which also furnishes heat to the other buildings of the College Yard and to the freshman dormitories.[8]:328

    Stacks innovations included wide bottom shelves and interchangeable regular and oversize shelves, "in order that the students and attendants using the stack would not be confused by the [subject] classes being broken up on account of variation of size. Books on the same subject properly belong together, and it is awkward and needless to separate them simply because one book may be larger than another."[5]

    In addition, the marble floors were polished using a machine "so simple that any laborer of ordinary intelli­gence can operate it to advantage [yet it] can do the work of ten men rubbing by hand."[61]

  9. ^ "At present everyone using the stack is obliged to go to the basement to reach the public toilet. This in the case of a man using one of the top floors of the stack is a particularly long trip ... An emergency toilet ... would be a desirable thing."[39]:59
  10. ^ [3] However, "Harvard does not collect all subjects and all types of material ... The holdings in subject areas not represented in the curriculum (such as agriculture) are understandably limited ..."[68]:352
  11. ^ [69][70]:E It was not always so. Originally "school-boys" earning 40 dollars per month fetched books requested via slips submitted to the Delivery Room. "Should a slip be received for a book in a part of the stack where a boy has just been sent—​particularly in the West stack, which is the farthest away from the central station—​the [request] is telephoned across on the internal telephone."[39]:56
  12. ^ [74] In H. P. Lovecraft's fictional universe Cthulhu Mythos, "a 17th century edition" of the Necro­nom­i­con is hidden somewhere in the Widener stacks.[75][76][77][78][79] Thomas Wolfe, who earned a Harvard master's degree in 1922[80] wrote of "[wandering] through the stacks of that great library like some damned soul, never at rest—​ever leaping ahead from the pages I read to thoughts of those I want to read";[81] his alter ego Eugene Gant (in his 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel) read with a watch in his hand, "laying waste of the shelves."[82] Historian Barbara Tuchman considered "the single most formative experience of my career" the writing of her undergrad­uate thesis, for which she was "allowed to have as my own one of those little cubicles with a table under a window" in the Widener stacks, which were "my Achimedes' bathtub, my burning bush, my dish of mold ... The experience was marvelous, a word I use in the exact sense meaning full of marvels."[74]
  13. ^ [88] The rug is a Heriz Persian,[89] the lamp on the desk an (unsigned) Tiffany.[90] In the library's early years, when the inner Memorial Room served as the office of the Widener Collec­tion's curator, fires sometimes burned in the fireplace.[91]
  14. ^ [96] A Widener curator's compilation of "fanciful oral history" recited by student tour guides includes "Flowers mysteriously appear every morning outside the Widener Room" and "Harry used to have carnations dyed crimson to remind him of Harvard, and so his mother kept up the tradition."[97]
  15. ^ [98] "Six years later[clarification needed] the Univer­sity published plans [to build what is now known as] Memorial Church to face Widener across the Yard and permanently display the Honor Roll, listing the names of the nearly four hundred Harvard men who perished in the war. This program­matic ensemble, located at the physical center of the Univer­sity, forms the most elaborate World War I memorial in the Boston area."[99]
  16. ^ Though strictly accurate the bookplate is misleading:[106] Harvard's charges against Joel C. Williams were dropped after he was indicted on book-theft charges in another jurisdic­tion, which imposed the hard-labor sentence.[107]

    Williams had been arrested after attempting to sell two[105] books bearing Harvard College Library stamps to a Harvard Square book dealer, after which (the Harvard Crimson reported) "C. R. Apted, Superin­tend­ent of Caretakers, together with officials of the Library, made a trip to Williams' home", where they found thousands of stolen books[108] in barrels and wastebaskets. The "absolutely crazy" Williams would "go to students studying in Widener and ask them what course they were taking. He would then borrow all the books for that course in the library. Then no one could get any to study," library official John E. Shea later recalled.[109]

    Shea (who began in 1905 checking coats in Gore Hall—​"my mother ... did professor C. T. Copeland's laundry for years"[109]—​and retired in 1954 as Widener's Stacks Superin­tendent) was renowned not only for leaving "no stone unthrown", as he himself put it, in locating mis-shelved or otherwise errant books, but also for his "genius for such malaprop­isms [which] in fact, were generally the mot juste." These included references to "venereal blinds" and "osculating fans" in the Catalog Room, equipment that had "outlived its uselessness", and a gift of a bottle of wine "as a momentum", as well as mention that Widener's head janitor "has a maniac for sweeping the basement."[1]

  17. ^ [94] The December 31, 1912 agreement between Eleanor Widener and the President and Fellows of Harvard College provides that "this collection, together with such books as may be added to it by members of the family of the Donor, shall at all times be kept separate and apart from the general library of Harvard ... Harvard is not ... ever to add anything to the said Harry Elkins Widener collection ... [S]aid books shall not be taken or removed from the two rooms specially set apart ... excepting only when necessary for the repair or restoration of any volume ..."[26]
  18. ^ [115] Harry Widener knew his grandfather had bought the Gutenberg Bible, but not that it was intended for him. "I wish it was for me but it is not", he wrote to a friend.[116] After Harry's death, and (soon after) that of his grandfather, the Bible passed to Harry's uncle;[clarification needed] at the uncle's death Harry's brother and sister added the Bible to the Harry Elkins Widener Collec­tion because it "had been bought for Harry and should be among his books." Yale also has a Gutenberg, though not in "quite as fine condition" as Harvard's, according to Harvard officials.[117]
  19. ^ [118] Though still housed in Widener Library's Memorial Rooms, the Harry Elkins Widener Collec­tion is administered through Houghton Library, Harvard's rare book and manuscript library.[87]:45
  20. ^ [122][123][124] "The only [one of Eleanor Widener's stipula­tions] not upheld was the swimming requirement, dropped in the late 1970s because it was deemed discriminatory against physically disabled students", the Harvard Crimson reported erroneously[19] in 1995.[96]
  21. ^ "Widener's system persists in the stacks to this day, preserving traces of the division of knowledge in its turn-of-the-century formula­tion. The 'Aus' class contains books on the Austro-Hungarian Empire; the 'Ott' class serves the purpose for the Ottoman Empire. Dante, Molière, and Montaigne each gets a class of his own." (Battles)[73]:15


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  116. ^ Widener, Harry Elkins (March 10, 1912). "Just a few lines to tell you that I am about to take a quick trip to England" (Letter to Luther Samuel Livingston). 
  117. ^ "Widener Gutenberg Bible Near Best – Outstanding Specimen In Harvard Scarce Volume Collec­tion". Harvard Crimson. November 10, 1949.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
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  121. ^ "Officials Add New Security For Widener Fire Threat, Bible Theft Spur Action". Harvard Crimson. September 23, 1969. 
  122. ^ a b Mann, Elizabeth (December 9, 1993). "The First Abridged Dictionary of Harvard Myths". The Harvard Independent. pp. 10–11. 
  123. ^ Mooney, Carolyn J. (October 12, 1994). "Swim or Sink". Chronicle of Higher Educa­tion: A35–A36.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  124. ^ a b Ireland, Corydon (April 5, 2012). "The Widener Memorial Room". Harvard Gazette (The President and Fellows of Harvard College). 
  125. ^ Kelley-Milburn, Deborah (February 22, 2012). "Is it true that Harvard students must pass a swimming test because of Harry Elkins Widener's death aboard the Titanic?". Harvard Library. Ask a Librarian. Retrieved April 30, 2014.  Check date values in: |accessdate= (help)
  126. ^ a b c Reed, Christopher (March–April 1997). "The Slasher". Harvard Magazine. 
  127. ^ Zoll, Rachel (April 14, 1996). "Libraries throw the book at their abundant looters". South Coast Today. 
  128. ^ a b Danuta A. Nitecki; Curtis L. Kendrick, eds. (2001). Library Off-site Shelving: Guide for High-density Facilities. Libraries Unlimited. p. 129. ISBN 978-1-56308-885-8. 
  129. ^ Goins, Jason M. (March 23, 1999). "Needed Renova­tions Planned For Widener". Harvard Crimson.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  130. ^ Wayne A. Wiegand; Donald G. Davis, eds. (1994). Encyclo­pedia of Library History. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 978-0-8240-5787-9. 
  131. ^ Library Leadership and Manage­ment Associa­tion. "Previous Winners of the AIA/ALA Library Buildings Award Program". American Library Associa­tion. 

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