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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

Widener Reborn

November-December 2004

On the afternoon of October 1, three students with gleaming brass horns, from each of which a banner emblazoned with an "H" hung down, mounted the stylobate of Widener Library and blew a fanfare. Benefactor Katherine B. Loker, D.H.L. '00, stepped to a crimson ribbon stretched across the vast front steps and, with the help of student representatives Dareema Jenkins '05 and Matthew Gibson '05, cut it with jumbo scissors. The gesture marked the rededication of the 89-year-old building at the end of a five-year, $92-million makeover project reported in these pages at many stages along the way.
A pop-up keepsake by Mark Steele given to guests at Widener's rededication dinner
Widener Library Photographic Services, Harvard College Library

"It has been a fascinating five years," said William C. Kirby, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, in brief remarks at the ceremony. "Those who study and work in this University have witnessed extraordinary feats of construction and reconstruction. We have marveled at the trucks and trusses and certainly that enormous crane lifting glass and steel to rather nerve-racking heights. Not to mention the daily symphony of hammering, drilling, pounding, sawing, and ringing."

The first phase of the project brought modern heating, ventilation, air-conditioning, humidity-control, electrical, lighting, fire-detection-and-suppression, and security systems to the 10 floors of stacks. Staff moved, cleaned, and reshelved all 3.5 million books. Workers from contractors Lee Kennedy built a staff workspace and two new reading rooms, to the design of architects Einhorn Yaffe Prescott, in what had been the two interior lightcourts of the library. In phase two of the project, attention shifted to the front half of the building. The great reading room regained its original size, splendor, and serenity, while noisy, interactive library services moved to refurbished or newly constructed spaces.

Workers lifted 191 tons of steel into lightcourts; removed 92 tons of demolition debris from the nether regions of D-Level and 150 tons of ductwork and cast-iron debris from the attic; installed 55 miles of electrical cable, 15 miles of fire-alarm cable, 18 miles of electrical conduit, and 11 miles of "tel/data" cable; placed 5 miles of sprinkler piping, with 5,000 sprinkler heads; applied 2,000 gallons of paint; replaced 4,000 light fixtures and 1,000 switches in the stacks; cleaned, refinished, and sealed 120,000 square feet of marble flooring; and much more.

"I also want to offer my deepest gratitude," said Kirby, "to Widener's librarians and staff, who never flinched from their commitment to keeping this library fully operational through-out the renovation. They called it — 'orchestrated chaos.' I call it courage.

"That's not, however, unusual for this library or for this University," Kirby continued. "In the midst of an era of grave international uncertainty, Harvard persevered in its quest to advance human knowledge by building Widener Library. As they did in 1915, we gather on these steps during challenging times and once again we dedicate this place — we dedicate ourselves — to the proposition that learning is the only path to enlightenment and that from enlightenment springs permanent improvement in the human condition."

Larsen librarian of Harvard College Nancy M. Cline and President Lawrence H. Summers also spoke. A throng of modest size viewed the proceedings, to which the library invited all members of the Harvard community; at their conclusion, cookies and cider were dispensed in a tent in Tercentenary Theatre. Later, library benefactors attended seminars on teaching with Widener's global collections. In the evening, they gathered with senior administrators for a formal dinner in the Loker Reading Room.

This signal moment in the life of the library will be marked in November by publication of Widener: Biography of a Library, by Matthew Battles, coordinating editor of the Harvard Library Bulletin (distributed by Harvard University Press, $50). A lively and wide-ranging narrative, it is an estimable addition to the shelves.