One of the cool things about working at Harvard: sometimes you get to peek into beautiful, historic, or otherwise distinguished buildings.
The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, named for a Harvard alumnus who went down with the Titanic (funded by his mother), is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. It is (mostly) open to students, faculty, staff and researchers year-round. The stacks go way down beneath Harvard Yard, and they are both fascinating and slightly eerie (if you happen to be down there alone).
But last Friday, the doors were thrown open for a reception to celebrate Widener’s centennial – complete with architectural drawings on display, cupcakes with crimson icing, a jazz trio, and red balloons.
I milled around with other visitors, munching on a cupcake. I loved seeing the photos of the library’s dedication ceremony in 1915, and the blueprints and correspondence laid out for our perusal. But my favorite part was stepping into a room where I can’t usually go.
The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Room is modeled after Harry’s study, and it contains his portrait and his personal collection of books. It’s usually open only to the library curator, who comes in weekly to place fresh flowers on the desk, as stipulated by Eleanor Elkins Widener, Harry’s mother and the library’s benefactor. (Legend also has it that Mrs. Widener hoped Harry’s ghost would come and visit his books once in a while.)
The room was crammed with people taking photos, and we could only look at the books, not touch them. But I wandered around, perusing the shelves, delighted to find (among other things) Harry’s collection of Dickens.
I understand that digital technology has helped transform learning, libraries and the spread of information. (I’m writing this post on a computer, of course – and my book reviews at Shelf Awareness and Great New Books are all digital.) But I have a deep love for the physical book, and the spaces that house such books. I believe we still need them, even in this social media age.
Widener is grand and imposing and full of history, but it’s also a place where people still come to study and learn and make new discoveries. One hundred years of that vital work is definitely something to celebrate.