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|Not much has changed at Widener Library since these scholars beavered in the reading room in 1915, except that the building and its contents have inexorably deteriorated. One expects that of scholars, but hopes for rejuvenation in their support systems. HARVARD UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES|
The life expectancy of the books in Widener Library would increase by a factor of two if the temperature, humidity, and purity of the air around them could be controlled. An adequate fire-detection and suppression system would protect the collection and the people who staff and use the library. At a faculty meeting in February, Peter K. Bol, professor of Chinese history and a member of the library committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, briefed his colleagues on library concerns. To achieve the elemental preservation and safety goals Bol described will cost $20 million. Much more than that will be spent before all major libraries at Harvard are up to snuff.
Renovating Widener to achieve even the limited goals Bol outlined will be an enormous task. "Every one of the 3.5 million books in Widener will have to be moved at least once," he told the faculty. "The challenge will be to assure that the library remains open and that the collection remains accessible.
"What made Widener the most modern of libraries in 1913 when it went up," said Bol, "has become the greatest of impediments to its renovation--the stacks themselves, all 50 miles of them. Ten tiers of stacks form the structural core of the building. They take all the weight of the books and hold up the floors and the roof. So we must work around the stacks, as well as working within the restrictions of Mrs. Widener's gift." By the terms of an agreement with Eleanor Elkins Widener, Harvard agreed that not a single brick or stone of the exterior would be altered and that it would "not permit any structures of any kind to be erected in the courts around which the said building is constructed, but that the same shall be kept open for light and air."
Last year the library hired an architectural, engineering, and interior design firm, Einhorn Yaffee Prescott, to conduct an environmental-control feasibility study of the Widener stacks. Planning and building committees are in place. Nancy Cline, Larsen librarian of Harvard College, expects construction to begin in the summer of 1999 and last about two years.
|Wanted: better lighting in the Widener stacks and better carrels with better wiring. Why can't Widener be more like Langdell? In Langdell one may plug in one's laptop almost anywhere one can sit--at 854 places, to be precise--and have access to the Internet. Bottom: books like neither sun nor dry heat. In this 1968 photograph at Widener, an eighteenth-century English-language edition of Pierre Bayle's Dictionnaire historique et critique (1696) gets both barrels. Top photo, REX C. YOUNG '80; Bottom photo, CHRISTOPHER S. JOHNSON|
Although the library's wiring will be upgraded to better meet expectations in a computer age, Bol cautioned the faculty not to get its hopes up about further enhancements. "I stress that as presently conceived this is a preservation and safety project only--an extremely expensive one," he said. "As users learn about the renovation, the library committee increasingly hears suggestions for improvements. Unfortunately, however pressing and necessary these improvements may be, and however much it may make sense to make them at the same time the stacks are renovated, unless there are major increases in support for the library, our resources will be devoted to the preservation of the collection."
The University Campaign set out to raise $78 million for the Harvard University Library, which included the $20 million needed for the renovation of the Widener stacks. Only $31 million, less than half the goal, has been raised to date, says Cline. But, feeling the matter of critical importance, the Harvard Corporation has voted to allow the renovation to proceed in any case.
There remains much to wish for besides an onrush of private funds to meet campaign goals. "At this time, we do not have in our plans any renovations outside of the Widener stacks," says Cline. "The front of the building, including the reading room and many offices [her own among them], will not be air-conditioned or otherwise changed." "Much reconfiguring needs to be done so that study and reference-room space matches users' working habits," says Bol. "And the staff are terribly cramped."
Should construction of two or three levels of new space in the internal courtyard of Widener prove feasible, offices and back-office work areas could be jockeyed and improvements accomplished to reading-room and other public spaces at the front of the building. Architects are reportedly investigating this possibility. One hoped-for new facility is what Cline calls a "managed reading room," where non-circulating books of substantial value could be used under some degree of supervision. Having such an area would help thwart thieves and mutilators who like to razor plates from books (see "Biblioklepts," March-April 1997, page 38).
What could make such construction feasible? The library would have to know that such a thing would not run counter to the present wishes of the Widener family. Money, large sums, would be needed, beyond those sought in the University Campaign. Finally, the changes would have to be logical, to make good programmatic sense.
To judge by what other Harvard libraries are spending, making Widener a really first-class library might require $40 million. Consider what has happened at the Law School library, what is underway at the Medical School, and what is imagined at the Business School.
Langdell Hall reopened last September after a $35.9-million renovation ("Law Library Amended," November-December 1997, page 70). Planners had opted to close the library, scattering books and librarians for a year and a quarter, rather than renovate piecemeal while keeping the doors open.
Whereas the main reading room in Langdell used to get so hot sometimes that the lights had to be dimmed and the windows flung open, admitting occasional bats, the entire library is now air-conditioned. Plumbing, heating, and electrical systems are new. Says librarian and professor of law Terry Martin '65, "The renovated library provides a more comfortable environment for people and books, quicker orientation and easier movement through the building, integrated stack and study areas, greater seating variety, more space for computers, microforms, and multimedia, and gender equity in rest rooms."
A student editor, in the ordinarily acerbic Harvard Law Record, called the library "The shining jewel as big as the Ritz with all that glorious, luminous interior space: a place that offers choice about how surrounded or solitary a soul can be, where paths can be carved in carpet to quiet nooks or to the managed interaction of a study room." "Perhaps the greatest compliment," says Martin, "is a petition from the student body to keep the library open 24 hours a day. Students feel that the new facility is the most comfortable and welcoming place at the law school, and they want access to it at all times. I'm not sure we were prepared for so much success."
At the Medical School, the Countway Library has begun a $21-million renovation. The building will remain open for business during the work, which is due to be completed by the next millennium. Architects Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott are creating a new first-floor reading room. The library receives more than 5,000 journals yearly (not all it might; the number of extant biomedical science journals increased from 8,000 titles in 1965 to 30,000 titles in 1996), and last year almost 400,000 people visited the library, many of them--students, faculty, clinicians, researchers--rushing in to consult the latest issue of one journal or another. They need a bright, comfortable place to sit down, in a space enclosed so that current journals do not disappear.
An entire floor of the building will be reworked as the so-called "Knowledge Laboratory," an electronic nerve center speeding access to information by linking the library to remote bench sites within the Medical School, to the affiliated hospitals, and to other institutions. The laboratory will establish fully networked multimedia classrooms and provide computer-network connections for users throughout the library. Read all about it on the Countway's website: "www. countway.med.harvard.edu/countway/ home.html".
The Business School expects to "revolutionize" Baker Library, says assistant dean and chief planning officer Angela Crispi, M.B.A. '90. "We will retain its quiet character in places, but will add a dynamic aspect. We envision a computer commons area that recognizes the importance of electronic media. We expect to create a rotunda, an active place, where one can watch CNN broadcasts or stock-market ticker tapes. We want to see how far we can push the envelope to make the library the intellectual hub of the campus."
The exterior of the building will not change except on the south side. There, new construction will increase the square footage of Baker from 135,000 to 150,000. Inside, everything but the main reading room will be transformed. Improvements to infrastructure account for a big piece of the job. The school intended to begin renovations soon, held a design competition, and selected Gwathmey Siegel as architects. "After we had begun the selection process," says Crispi, "we realized the work would have to be delayed. The complexities of the project are so enormous that we have to complete other parts of our campus plan [see "Building Business," March-April 1997, page 68] before work on Baker begins." All 600,000 pieces in the collection, and all the staff who tend them, will have to quit the building. The design process will start full steam in 2000 and construction in 2002. The project cost, says Crispi, will be between $35 million and $50 million.
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