Widener Library

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Harry Elkins Widener
Memorial Library
WidenerLibrary HarvardUniversity Springtime.jpg
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)
  • 3 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.

The 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] Its 57 miles (92 km) of shelves, along five miles (8 km) 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."[4]

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,[5] "the precious group of rare and wonder­fully interesting books brought together by Mr. Widener",[6] to which was later added one of the few perfect Gutenberg Bibles—​the object of a 1969 burglary attempt conjectured by Harvard's police chief to have been inspired by the heist filmTopkapi.

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.

Tablets in vestibule and foyer. "This noble gift to learning comes to us with the shadow of a great sorrow resting upon it", said Senator Lodge at the dedica­tion. "But with the march of the years the shad­ow of grief will pass, while the great memo­rial will remain".[A]

Conception and gift[edit]

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


Main article: Gore Hall

By the opening of the twentieth century alarms had been issuing for many years about Harvard's "disgrace­fully inadequate"[9]:276 library, Gore Hall, completed 1841 (when Harvard owned some 44,000 books)[10]:5 and declared full in 1863.[10]:5 The school's librarian concluded his 1892 Annual Report by pleading, "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";[11]:15 a successor claimed that the Boston Public Library was a better place to write an undergraduate thesis.[12]:30 Despite substantial additions in 1876 and 1907,[13] in 1910 a committee of architects called Gore

unsafe [and] unsuitable for its object ... 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 ...[14]:51–2

With dormitory basements pressed into service as overflow storage[15] for Harvard's 543,000 books,[16]:50 the committee drew up a plan for replacement of Gore in stages. Andrew Carnegie was approached for financing, without success.[17]:88

Death of Harry Widener[edit]

Main article: Harry Elkins Widener
Emptying Gore Hall

In 1912 Harry Elkins Widener—​scion of two of the wealthiest families in America,[18] a 1907 graduate of Harvard College, an accomplished bibliophile despite his youth[19]—​died in the sinking of the RMS Titanic. His father George Dunton Widener perished as well, but his mother Eleanor Elkins Widener survived.[18]

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",[20] and he had told a friend, not long before he died, "I want to be remembered in connection with a great library, [but] I do not see how it is going to be brought about."[19]

To enable the fulfillment of her son's wish Eleanor Widener briefly consid­ered donating an addition to Gore Hall, but soon determined to give instead a completely new and far larger library building—​"a perpetual memorial"[17]:90 to "my dear son"[21] housing not only Harry Widener's book collection but Harvard's general library as well.[22] As Biel has written, "The committee's Beaux Arts design [for Gore Hall's projected successor], with its massiveness and symmetry, offered monumen­tal­ity with nothing more particular to monumen­tal­ize than the aspira­tions of the modern university"—​until Harry Widener died and "through delicate negotia­tion, [Harvard] convinced Eleanor Widener that the most eloquent tribute to Harry would be an entire library rather than a rare book wing."[17]:88–9

Terms and cost of gift[edit]

To this gift Mrs. Widener attached a number of stipulations,[23]:43 including that the building's architects be the firm of Horace Trumbauer & Associates,[24] which had built several mansions for both the Elkins and the Widener families.[23]:27 "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," Lowell wrote privately. "The exterior was her own choice, and she has decided architec­tur­al opinions."[25] Harvard historian William Bentinck-Smith has written that

Gore Hall under demolition
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.[B]

Though Harvard awarded Trumbauer an honorary degree on the day of the new library's dedication,[C] it was Trumbauer associate Julian F. Abele who had overall responsi­bility for the building's design,[24] which largely followed the committee's outline, though with the circula­tion room shifted to the northeast corner to give pride of place at the building's center to the Memorial Rooms.[17]:89

After Gore Hall was turned into a "pile of stones and rubbish" to make way,[D] ground was broken February 12, 1913 and the corner­stone laid on June 16. By later that year some 50,000 bricks were being laid each day.[30]


View from University Hall
Second floor plan

At Harvard's "geographical and intellec­tual heart"[31] directly across Tercentenary Theatre from Memorial Church,[32] the Library is a hollow rectangle of "Harvard brick with Indiana limestone traceries",[33] 250 ft by 200 ft by 80 ft high (76 x 61 x 24 m)[25]:167 and enclosing 320,000 square feet (30,000 m2)[31], "colon­naded on its front by immense pillars with elaborate [Corinthian capitals],[34]:362 all of which stand at the head of a flight of stairs that would not disgrace the capitol in Washing­ton."[25] Sources describe the building's style as (variously) Beaux-Arts,[17]:88 Georgian,[35]:57[36]:457 Hellenistic,[37]:281 or "the austere, formalistic Imperial [or 'Imperial and Classical'] style displayed in the Law School's Langdell Hall and the Medical School Quadrangle".[34]:361

The east, south, and west wings house the stacks, while the north contains administrative offices and various reading rooms, including the Main Reading Room (now 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 architec­tur­al historian Bainbridge Bunting "the most ostenta­tious interior space at Harvard."[38]:154 A topmost floor, supported by the stacks framework itself, contains thirty-two rooms for special collections, studies, offices, and seminars.[39]

The Memorial Rooms (see § Widener Memorial Rooms) are in the building's center, between what were originally two light courts (28 ft by 110 ft or 8.5 m by 33 m)[40] now enclosed as additional reading rooms.[41]


Gabriel Ferrier's por­trait of Harry Widener hangs in the Memorial Rooms.[42]

The building was dedicated immediately after Com­mence­ment Day exercises on June 24, 1915. Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell and Library Director A. C. Coolidge mounted the steps to main door, where Eleanor Widener was waiting, and received from her the keys to the building.[43] 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,[10]:18 believed (at the time) 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.[44]

"President Lowell accepting the key from Mrs. Widener"
"Even from the very entrance one will [glimpse] the portrait of young Harry Widener" far inside.
Above the main door, hallmarks of 15th-century printers: Caxton; Rembolt; Aldus; Fust and Schöffer.[45][46]
Flanking the Memorial Rooms' entrance, murals by Sargent honor World War I dead.
The Memorial Rooms "reflect an atmos­phere of realism", said a visitor, "[as if] Harry Widener still lived among his books."[17]:91 The desk at left was Harry's own.[E]

In the Memorial Rooms, after a benediction by Bishop William Lawrence,[7] a portrait of Harry Widener was unveiled, then remarks delivered by Senator Henry Cabot Lodge (speaking on "The Meaning of a Great Library"[51] on behalf of Eleanor Widener) and Lowell ("For years we have longed for a library that would serve our purpose, but we never hoped to see such a library as this").[43] 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.[7]

Widener Memorial Rooms[edit]

The central Memorial Rooms—​an outer Rotunda[52] housing memorabilia of the life and death of Harry Widener,[53] and an inner Library displaying the 3300 rare books collected by him—​were described by the Boston Sunday Herald soon after the dedication:

The [Rotunda] 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] upon the desks are vases filled with flowers.

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.[F]

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."[39]:325

For many years Eleanor Widener hosted Commencement Day luncheons in the Memorial Rooms.[10]:20 The family underwrites their upkeep,[55] including weekly renewal of the flowers[56]—​originally roses but now carnations.[57]

Amenities and deficiencies[edit]

Amenities touted at the building's opening included telephones, pneumatic tubes, book lifts and conveyors, elevators,[6] and a dining-room and kitchenette "for the ladies of the staff".[58]:676 Advertisements for the manufacturer of the building's shelving highlighted its "dark brown enamel finish, harmonizing with oak trim",[59] and special interchangeable regular and oversize shelves meant that books on a given subject could be shelved together regardless of size.[G]

Nonetheless certain deficien­cies were soon noted.[23]:107[17]:89 A primitive form of air conditioning was abandoned within a few months.[62] "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 opaquely in 1918.[H] 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 [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.")[14]:102 Faculty competition for the seventy[39]:327 coveted private studies, giving direct access to the stacks, has been a long­standing distraction for library administrators.[23]: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 exterior additions or alterations[14]:79—​was removed in 2004.[65][66] (Houghton and Lamont Libraries were built in the 1940s to relieve Widener,[67][68] which had become simultaneously too small—​its shelves were full[69]—​and too large—​its immense size and complex catalog made books difficult to find.[64]:27 Nonetheless, with Harvard's collections doubling every 17 years, by 1965 Widener had again reached 85 percent capacity,[70] leading to construction of Pusey.)[71]


In the 1920s the university commissioned John Singer Sargent to paint, within the fourteen-foot-high arched panels flanking the entrance to the Rotunda, two murals giving tribute to the univer­sity's World War I dead.[72] With Memorial Church, which directly faces Widener, these constitute what the Boston Public Library calls "the most elaborate World War I memorial in the Boston area."[32]

Above the Rotunda entrance is inscribed: "To the memory of Eleanor Elkins Rice  • whose noble and endearing spirit inspired the conception and completion of this Memorial Library  • 1938."[73] (Eleanor Elkins Widener became Eleanor Elkins Rice when, in October 1915, she married Harvard professor[74] and surgeon[75] Alexander Hamilton Rice, Jr., a noted South American explorer whom she had met at the library's dedication four months earlier.[52] She died in 1937.[18])

On the building's second floor is a bronze bust, by Albin Polasek, of sculptor and muralist Frank Millet, who had also died on the Titanic.[76]

Collections and stacks[edit]

The "labyrinth" of stacks. Each of the ten lev­els has some 187 rows of shelves.[58]:327
The two lowest stack levels before inter­vening floor panels were installed

The ninety-unit Harvard Library system,[34]: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[77]:352—​making it "unambigu­ously the greatest univer­sity library in the world," in the words of a Harvard official.[78]

According to the Harvard College Library's own description, Widener's humanities and social sciences collections include

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.[I]

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.[J] Its 3.5 million volumes[31] occupy 57 miles (92 km) of shelves[81] along five miles (8 km) of aisles[82] on ten separate levels divided into three wings each[83]:4—​a "labyrinth" which one student "could not enter without feeling that she ought to carry a compass, a sandwich, and a whistle."[4]

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 one official put it)[41] so that "learning to [find books in] Widener was like a rite of passage, a test of manhood"[84]—​and a 1979 monograph on library design complained, "After one goes through the main doors of Harvard's Widener Library, the only visible sign says merely ENTER ... Advice on where to go for help is placed rather inconspicuously on a small sign at the end of a catalog case."[85] At times color-coded lines and shoeprints have been applied to the floors to help patrons keep their bearings.[86][87][88]

As of 1997[needs update] the library reshelved some 600,000 volumes each year.[84] Another 3 million[89] Widener items reside offsite (along with many millions of items from other Harvard libraries) at the Harvard Depository in Southbor­ough, Massachu­setts, from which they are retrieved overnight on request.[23]:170-1 A project to insert barcodes into each book, begun in the late 1970s, has yet to reach about 1 million volumes.[89]

Harry Elkins Widener Collection[edit]

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":[10]:9 Shakespeare first folios;[34]:362 a copy of Poems written by Wil. Shake-speare, gent. (1640) in its original sheepskin binding;[90] an inscribed copy of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson; Johnson's own Bible ("used so much by its owner that several pages were worn out and Johnson copied them over in his own writing");[55] and first editions, presenta­tion copies, and similarly valuable volumes of Robert Louis Stevenson, Thackeray, Charlotte Brontë, Blake, George Cruikshank, Isaac Cruikshank, Robert Cruikshank[5] and Dickens—​including the petty cash book kept by Dickens while a young law clerk.[91] (Book collector George Sidney Hellman, writing soon after Harry Widener's death, observed that 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.")[91]

"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"[92]—​except that the Widener family has the exclusive privilege of adding to it.[K] Harvard's "greatest typographical treasure"[93]:17 is one of the only thirty-eight perfect copies extant[94] of the Gutenberg Bible,[95] purchased while Harry was abroad by his grandfather Peter A. B. Widener (who intended to surprise Harry with it once the Titanic docked in New York)[55] and donated to the Collection by the Widener family in 1944.[L]

Like all Harvard's valuable books, works in the Widener Collec­tion may be consulted by researchers demonstrating a genuine research need.[99]

Departmental and special libraries[edit]

The building also houses a number of special libraries in dedicated spaces outside the stacks, includ­ing:

There are also special collections in the history of science, linguis­tics, Near Eastern languag­es and civiliza­tions, paleogra­phy, and Sanskrit.[100]

The contents of the Treasure Room, holding Harvard's most precious rare books and manuscripts (other than the Harry Elkins Widener Collection itself) were transferred to newly built Houghton Library in 1942.[93]:15

In literature and legend[edit]

Swim-requirement, ice-cream, and other legends[edit]

The stacks (here under con­struc­tion) double as struc­tur­al ele­ments,[59] mak­ing Wide­ner the last major self-support­ing mason­ry build­ing, with no outer steel frame, built in the US.[34]:362

A Harvard legend holds that Eleanor Widener, to ensure no other Harvard man would share her son's fate, demanded (as a condition of her gift) that all future graduates be required to demonstrate an ability to swim[101][102][103] (this requirement, the Harvard Crimson once elaborated, "dropped in the late 1970s because it was deemed discriminatory against physically disabled students").[57] "Among the many myths relating to Harry Elkins Widener, this is the most prevalent", says Harvard's "Ask a Librarian" service. Though Harvard has had swimming requirements at various times (e.g. for rowers on the Charles River, or as part of a now-defunct freshmen training regimen)[104] Bentinck-Smith writes that "There is absolutely no evidence in the President's papers, or the faculty's, to indicate that [Eleanor Widener] was, as a result of the Titanic disaster, in any way responsi­ble for [any] compulsory swimming test."[10]

Another story, holding that Eleanor Widener donated a further sum to underwrite perpetual availability of ice cream (purportedly Harry Widener's favorite dessert) in Harvard dining halls, is also without foundation.[101][103] 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" in the flowers displayed in the Memorial Rooms.[105]

Literary references[edit]

Main reading room in 1915[106]

In H. P. Lovecraft's fictional universe Cthulhu Mythos, a 17th-century edition of the Necro­nom­i­con is hidden somewhere in the Widener stacks.[107][108][109][110][111]

Thomas Wolfe, who earned a Harvard master's degree in 1922[112] 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";[113] his alter ego Eugene Gant (in his 1929 novel Look Homeward, Angel) read with a watch in his hand, "laying waste of the shelves."[114]

Historian Barbara Tuchman considered "the single most formative experience" of her 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 where I found my personal penicillin."[4]

Burglary and other incidents[edit]

Gutenberg Bible theft[edit]

Card catalogs, 1915

On the night of August 19, 1969 an attempt was made to steal the Gutenberg Bible, valued at $1 million.[115] 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.[80]:D

Eventually he fell some 50 feet (15 m)[93]:45 to the pavement of one of the light courts, where (despite landing on the knapsack)[80]:D he lay semicon­scious[115] until his moans were heard by a janitor.[93]:45 He was found about 1 a.m.,[116] "consid­er­a­bly the worse for his adventure",[80]:D with injuries including a fractured skull.[115] "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."[115] Tonis specu­lated that the attempt may have been modeled on a similar caper depicted in the 1964 filmTopkapi.[116]

Only the books' bindings (which are not original) were damaged.[115] Since the incident only one or the other Bible volume is on display at any given time[80]:E and a replica has been substituted at times of heightened security concern.[117]

"The Slasher"[edit]

Catalog card. C denotes Church History and Theology.

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 languages such as Icelandic.[79] Notes left at Widener, and later at Northeastern University, threatened graphically described mutilations of library workers, cyanide gas attacks,[118] and bombings of libraries and a local bank.[119] Other notes instructed that $500,000 be left in a Northeastern library, demanded that Northeastern "terminate all Jew personnel", and 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." These "ransom drops" were staked out by the FBI,[118] and surveillance cameras installed in ersatz books, without result.[120][121]

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.[79] Officials found "a kind of renegade reference room" in the worker's basement,[122] includ­ing library books, piles of ripped-out pages, a microfilm camera, and hundreds of unusable microfilms he had haphaz­ardly made of the books (worth $180,000) he had destroyed.[79] At trial "The Slasher" said he had acted in 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.[118]

Joel C. Williams[edit]

Bookplate placed in 2504 books[123][124]

In 1931 former graduate student Joel C. Williams was arrested[125] after attempting to sell two[124] 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[125] 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.[M]

Despite the misleading[127] implication of bookplates placed in the 2504[80]:D recovered books, Harvard's charges against Williams were dropped after he was indicted on book-theft charges in another jusridic­tion, which imposed a sentence of hard labor.[128]

Restrictions on women[edit]

The building originally included a separate Radcliffe Reading Room behind the card catalogs—​"barely large enough for a single table"—​to which female students were restricted "for fear their presence would distract the studious Harvard men" in the Main Reading Room.[23] Keyes Metcalf, Director of University Libraries from 1937 to 1955, wrote that early in his tenure a Classics professor "rushed into my office, looking as if he were about to have an apoplectic stroke, and gasped, 'I've just been in the [main] reading room, and there is a Radcliffe girl in there!'" At that time female graduate students were permitted to enter the stacks, but only until 5 p.m., "after which time it was thought they would not be safe there."[N]

By World War II (a woman recalled years later) "we could go into the [Main Reading Room] and use the encyclopedias and things like that there, if we stood up, but we couldn't sit down".[129]


Southeast view of rear (Massa­chu­setts Ave.) facade (c. 1915) before Hough­ton Library and Wiggles­worth Hall were built to the east and south

A five-year, $97 million renovation completed in 2004[41] (the first since the building opened[130]) added fire suppression and environ­men­tal control systems, upgraded wiring and communica­tions, remodeled various public spaces, and enclosed the light courts to create additional reading rooms[41] (beneath which were hidden several new levels of offices and mechanical equipment).[131] "Claustro­pho­bia-inducing" elevators were replaced,[87] the bottom shelves on the lowest stacks level were removed in recognition of chronic seepage problems,[130] Widener's "olfactory nostal­gia ... actually the smell of decaying books" was addressed,[132] 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.[41]

Some changes required a grant of relief from the Widener family[133] from 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".[14]:79[23]: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,[O] and the Library of Congress system adopted in the 1970s[134]:256[23]:159—​were physically adjacent for the first time.[81][87] The chart showing the floor and wing location, within the stacks, of each subject classifica­tion was revised sixty-five times during construction.[41] The project received the 2005 Library Building Award from the American Library Associa­tion and the American Institute of Architects.[135]


  1. ^ [7] The quotation "He labored not for himself only ..." alludes to Ecclesi­as­ti­cus 33:17. A third tablet reads: "This library erected in loving memory of Harry Elkins Eidener by his mother Eleanor Elkins Widener  • Dedicated June 24 1915".[8]
  2. ^ [10]:14 Eleanor Widener was extremely sensitive to confusion over the circumstances of her gift, writing 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 [paternal] grandfather P. A. B. Widener[21] as has been so often stated." Years later her second husband A. H. Rice, Jr. 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."[10]:15
  3. ^ [26]:147 Eleanor Widener was not similarly honored, because women were ineligible for Harvard honorary degrees at the time.[16] The Harvard Graduates Magazine reassured its readers that the admission of ladies, for the first time, to certain Commencement proceedings "will not, however, create any precedent. It was due to the dedication of the Library, which demanded that once, at least, custom should be broken in favor of Mrs. Widener and her friends ..."[27]
  4. ^ [10]: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 Gall  • 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 ..."[28][29]
  5. ^ [47] The rug is a Heriz Persian;[48] on the desk is an unsigned Tiffany lamp.[49] In the library's early years, when the Memorial Rooms served as the office of the Widener Collec­tion's curator, fires were sometimes set in the fireplace.[50]
  6. ^ [54] Trumbauer "had no rivals when it came to tempting clients to spend immodest sums", wrote Wayne Andrews;[10]:16 Biel wrote 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.[17]:89
  7. ^ [6] 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.[58]:328

    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]

  8. ^ "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."[23]:59
  9. ^ [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 ..."[77]:352
  10. ^ [79][80]: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."[23]:56
  11. ^ [55] 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 ..."[14]
  12. ^ [96] 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.[97] 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.[98]
  13. ^ [126] John Shea was for forty years Widener's "guardian and familiar spirit". His mother had been a college "biddy" who (he said) "did professor C. T. Copeland's laundry for years",[126] and he began his own Harvard career in 1905 as a Gore Hall coatchecker. By his 1954 retirement as Widener's Stacks Superin­tendent, he was "perhaps the last of the legendary College characters",[34]:58 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]
  14. ^ After his retirement Metcalf wrote that when planning the later Lamont Library, "I was still old fashioned enough enough to believe that, if women [would permitted to use it] we should probably not have the small, unsupervised reading rooms that we were planning."[64]:87
  15. ^ "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)[83]:15


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External links[edit]