Houghton Library, with its shaded windows and imposing bookshelves holding centuries-old books, was mysterious and unapproachable — a vault to the public. The building’s floor-to-ceiling windows were shaded to protect the precious manuscripts housed inside, which in turn made those books inaccessible to curious passersby.
“You walked in, and there was a guard,” says Peter J. Solomon ’60, who, along with his wife Susan, helped fund the library’s latest renovation, completed earlier this year. “You felt immediately that you were not wanted, and in fact you were not wanted.”
This attitude towards Houghton persisted for years after Solomon’s graduation.
But Houghton’s latest renovation is meant to amend the misconception that valuable collections should be locked away rather than used as a recourse to the public. The renovation increases the library’s accessibility, adding ramps to the building’s entrance and an elevator inside. To those who worked on Houghton’s renovation, however, accessibility means more than simply increasing the building’s physical access. “Our goal was to open up, both physically and psychologically, to the community,” Solomon says.
That “opening” is reflected in the library’s new design. “Beautiful” windows sparked praise from the architects, according to Thomas A. Hyry, the director of the Houghton Library: “The architects came in and said, ‘Wow, you’re doing a really great job lighting your locker room.’” Moreover, the library lobby now boasts exhibition cases featuring a wide array of offerings from the collections. Hyry hopes that these objects serve as an “entree” to the contents that lie inside Houghton.
David M. Stern, a professor of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, teaches a freshman seminar centered around rare books in the library. “It’s night and day,” Stern says, in reference to how the renovation has impacted teaching. While Houghton was “not known for being friendly,” the cold demeanor associated with special collections has changed over the last 20 years, and “this renovation really physically shows the change.”
“They did a spectacular job,” he says.
Houghton’s renovation comes at a critical point for the humanities at Harvard. Over the past several years, humanities classes at the College have seen a decline; 10 out of the 18 humanities concentrations offered saw a significant decrease in enrollment, six remained relatively the same, and only two saw slight increases from 2015 to 2019. “It’s losing its primacy, losing its sense of relevance to a lot of people,” Stern says. “What humanists have to do is find more points of relevance. That’s the challenge.”
The renovation at Houghton takes a step toward reversing this trend by fostering engagement with the written arts. “This library has always been willing and happy to help you if you took the initiative to come in and ask questions the right way,” Hyry says. But he also notes an attitude shift: “We’ve really wanted to reach out to different populations, especially students and say, ‘If you even have an ounce of curiosity, come and talk to us.’”
Hyry hopes that all students, not solely humanities concentrators, will find Houghton’s special collections library of use. If there were no student “who graduated without coming into this library” to “enjoy an exhibit, or as part of a class, or for their own research project,” Hyry states the library would have achieved a “really wonderful goal.”