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been Harry's plan to donate his personal collection to the University once it provided a suitable alternative to the outdated and inadequate library then located in Gore Hall.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 lead 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.


Widener Library holds one of the world's most comprehensive research collections in the humanities and social sciences. These remarkably diverse collections of books, journals, microforms, films, pamphlets, posters, audio recordings, electronic resources, and ephemera numbering in the millions are the result of deliberate, systematic, forward-looking acquisitions amassed over hundreds of years, a process that today remains a vital part of the library's mission.

The humanities and social sciences collections of the Widener Library are represented by distinguished 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.

The holdings include major research materials in more than 100 languages collected from virtually every country in the world. As a result of the library's extensive efforts to accumulate these materials, the Widener Library serves as an efficient instrument of scholarship for researchers from Harvard and elsewhere.

Contributed by igrkio
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