Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Widener Library: Youthful at the Core

January-February 2002

The rejuvenation of Widener Library progresses. The Phillips Reading Room opened for use in October, a major new something-to-see. It is one of two nearly identical reading rooms built within the perimeter of the stacks in the former light courts on either side of the rotunda at the center of the building--grand spaces and a valuable enhancement to the building Mrs. Widener gave to Harvard nine decades ago.

Any library patron may use Phillips, and will appreciate the room's quiet and agreeable atmosphere, but it is specifically a "controlled" reading room, where books that are not housed in the open stacks and do not circulate--usually, valuable books--may be used under the hawk eye of a librarian. Phillips is intended to thwart thieves and mutilators of books, persons who occasionally in the past have enjoyed the seclusion of the stacks.

The room will also--and, again, to protect the collection--accommodate people without Harvard identification cards who are granted library privileges, people who heretofore might have been permitted access to the stacks. Thus, an Egyptologist visiting from the University of Bergen will go to an assigned seat in Phillips, and material from the Widener stacks, or from the Harvard Depository, will be brought to that seat for use in the reading room. The reading matter can be held in or near the room for several days for the scholar's return visits. Library staff promise they will cheerfully bring all that is requested so that the Bergenser will not be wholly denied the opportunity for serendipitous discoveries that browsing the stacks allows--and will have a place to sit while making them.

The room's name recognizes the generosity of Charles Phillips '70, M.B.A. '72, and his wife, Candace (Robertson) Phillips.

With heightened concern about security in general, the library speeded up planned installation of machines that read identification cards at the entrances to the building and to the stacks. Now one swipes one's Harvard ID card to gain admittance.

Phase 1 of the Widener rehabilitation, with a project cost of $56 million, should be complete by the end of March. Its focus is on the stacks and the guts of the elderly building. Librarians are moving all the books in an elaborate minuet so that work on each of the 10 stack levels can go forward, and they are dusting the books in the process, no small job. A team is selecting 10 percent of the books for off-site storage to make room for future acquisitions. The stacks have better lighting, a new sprinkler system, and a network of new, orange, smoke-detector pipes. The lighting system enhances personal security because any motion in the stacks turns on the lights. For the first time the air is regulated, with a temperature of 68 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity ranging from a winter minimum of 30 percent to a summer maximum of 50 percent. The favored faculty members with study offices in Widener are now or will be similarly aerated. When the work is complete, HOLLIS terminals will be found on every floor and photocopiers on every other. All the study carrels will be refurbished, and each will have a data jack. The east side of the stacks is done; workers on the west are moving from the bottom up.

The second of the two new reading rooms, intended ultimately for the use of any patron wishing to leave the stacks and sit down with a book in comfort, will be used during Phase 2 of operations as temporary quarters for books and library staff members. These are days of discombobulation, but, notes project manager Jeffrey Cushman '69, Ds '77, "The books don't complain when you move them."

Phase 2, with a project cost of $32 million, began last June and will run into 2004. "There's a lot of marble in this building," acknowledges Cushman, "and it won't be restored to perfection. But by 2004 we will have done just about all else that needs to be done. As with the books, we will rearrange, consolidate, and make sense of the administrative and public spaces. The back-office functions will move down in the building. Busy, interactive services will be separated from the reading rooms. Things will get quieter as one goes up."

"This renewal includes not only the restoration of the original architectural features and finishes," says Susan Lee, associate librarian for planning and administration, "but also the creation of new spaces for programmatic use." Thus, reference services and the periodicals reading area, which have long encroached on the main Loker Reading Room on the second floor, will be ousted from that impressive chamber. A new reference and research-services room will be provided adjacent to the Loker Room. In it, patrons will be able to confer with librarians without disturbing readers or the somnolent, as now happens.

A new periodicals room will be created on the first floor--the level on which visitors enter, at the top of the sweep of steps in front--and that floor will become a hub connecting patrons with the various parts of the library. Near the periodicals room will be a new space in which to read microtext files of old newspapers. Offices for administrators and for those in charge of collection development, who have numerous contacts with faculty members and non-Harvard people, will also be on this floor, according to Lynda Leahy, associate librarian for research and instruction. So will an expanded privileges office to welcome the large number of visiting Egyptologists and others, who sometimes form long lines in today's facility. The main entrance to the stacks and to the new reading rooms one floor above will be there, too.

"When this project is complete," says Lee, "Widener Library will be reestablished as a modern facility that can comfortably accommodate both books and users for decades to come."