Widener Library History
The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library is Harvard University's flagship library. Built with a gift from Eleanor Elkins Widener, it is a memorial to her son, Harry, Class of 1907, an enthusiastic young bibliophile who perished aboard the Titanic. It had been Harry's plan to donate his personal collection to the University once it provided a suitable alternative to the outdated and inadequate library then located in Gore Hall. Mrs. Widener fulfilled her son's dream by building a facility of monumental proportions, with over 50 miles of shelves and the capacity to hold over three million volumes.
The library opened in 1915, but Harvard's collections continued to grow at an astounding rate and by the late 1930s, Widener's shelves were filled to capacity. Space was at a premium for staff and patrons as well as books, which led the library administration to begin a lengthy decentralization process. Over time Harvard built several new libraries to house the increasingly specialized collections. By redistributing books to new libraries, space opened up in Widener, but it was gradually given over to the growing staff hired to attend to the collections.
In addition to the physical challenges associated with housing and maintaining an ever growing collection, the 20th century also saw technological advancements that affected Widener from electrical wiring to a computerized card catalog to sophisticated research workstations.
Widener Library ushered in the new millennium in the midst of its greatest change since opening in 1915. From 1999 to 2004, the building underwent an extensive renovation to ensure the long-term preservation and security of collections and to increase user space. Renovations included an upgrade of the heating, ventilation, air conditioning, humidity control, electrical, lighting, fire suppression, and security systems. In addition, two new reading rooms and staff workspace were created in the building's two interior light courts, and space previously designated for staff was reallocated for patron use.
For more in-depth information about Widener's history, see:
- The online exhibition History of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Collection
- Widener: Biography of a Library (Harvard University Press, 2004) by Matthew Battles.