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Harvard Plans To Renovate 4 Major Libraries Ahead of 400th Anniversary

In advance of its 400th anniversary in 2036, Harvard will renovate Widener, Lamont, Pusey, and Houghton libraries.
In advance of its 400th anniversary in 2036, Harvard will renovate Widener, Lamont, Pusey, and Houghton libraries. By Natalie Y. Zhang
By Neeraja S. Kumar and Annabel M. Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

Martha Whitehead, vice president of the Harvard Library, announced plans to renovate the four major libraries in Harvard Yard — Widener, Lamont, Pusey, and Houghton — during a faculty meeting last week.

Whitehead said in an interview on Friday that she hopes the renovations of all four libraries will be complete by Harvard’s 400th anniversary in 2036.

“It’s a long term vision,” she said. “The nice thing about it is that as ideas come up, you can sort of test them.”

Whitehead called the broad vision of these renovations “Advancing Open Knowledge” and said that they will create new “points of engagement” for students, faculty, and visitors with the libraries’ collections and resources.

Widener Library

The first development to Widener, known as the the heart of Harvard libraries, will be the addition of a publicly accessible “Discovery Center” on the library’s first floor.

The new visitor center will include an exhibit on the “history of Harvard,” which Whitehead said will display archival collections such as the map collection currently housed at Pusey Library.

Whitehead said that these changes to the front of Widener will foster a “sense of welcome” to both students and visitors who often excitedly stumble into Widener only to find themselves locked out.

“I think it’ll have a completely different feel for this building,” she added.

Widener Library is known as the heart of Harvard libraries and has five stories of underground book stacks.
Widener Library is known as the heart of Harvard libraries and has five stories of underground book stacks. By Ryan N. Gajarawala

David F. Elmer ’98, chair of the Classics Department, said he voiced concerns to Whitehead that increased traffic at Widener could be an obstacle to scholarly work.

In a follow-up email, Elmer wrote that “high traffic volumes might also reduce the total ‘output’ of a given space in terms of high-intensity scholarly work, which often requires quiet concentration.”

Public access to Widener will be limited to the front area of the building. Quiet study spaces in Widener such as the Loker Reading Room will remain accessible only to Harvard affiliates.

Whitehead said planning for the renovation is still in the “exploratory stages,” so the earliest students could expect to see any change to Widener’s first floor would be in fall 2025.

A booklet distributed to faculty at last week’s meeting detailed renovation plans and other potential changes in Widener, such as the addition of a cafe or retail shop and the reconfiguration of the third floor as a collaborative work space that promotes “interdisciplinary scholarship.”

Lamont Library

The renovation of Lamont will center around improving its aged infrastructure. The library is known among undergraduates for remaining open throughout the school week, leading many students to develop a love-hate relationship with the space.

In the interview, Whitehead said that renovating Lamont is “a first priority phase” due to its importance to undergraduates.

“People love Lamont, and we always see the articles about studying there in the middle of the night,” Whitehead said. “But we also hear a lot just about how it needs some tender loving care.”

The University will increase window lighting in Lamont’s reading rooms and reconfigure them to form a “vertically-integrated” space, according to the booklet distributed to faculty.

The changes to reading rooms and spaces like the Woodbury Poetry Room will offer a more diverse range of “welcoming spaces for individual and collective work and study.”

Another major aspect of the renewal project is the relocation of Harvard’s Fine Arts Library and Collection from the Littauer Center to a collections space in Lamont.

Whitehead said students should not worry about access to study spaces while renovations are ongoing.

The changes will be carried out in separate stages and planning is underway to make study locations accessible throughout the process.

Pusey Library and Houghton Library

The renovations to Pusey, an underground library that contains the Harvard University Archives, will prioritize increasing accessibility to the space and its materials.

Projects include making the library accessible by wheelchair, relocating certain collections to Widener, designing a daylit workspace, and creating a space for patrons to consult librarians on digital research methods.

Houghton, which cultivates Harvard’s special collections, was renovated in 2021, but additional renovations will aim to make its materials more accessible.

“We also keep hearing that people would like more opportunities to engage with those wonderful special collections,” Whitehead said. “There’s more that we could do there.”

A construction mitigation sign hangs on a fence outside the Houghton Library construction site in Harvard Yard. Houghton finished its most recent renovations in 2021 but planning is underway for further improvements.
A construction mitigation sign hangs on a fence outside the Houghton Library construction site in Harvard Yard. Houghton finished its most recent renovations in 2021 but planning is underway for further improvements. By Kathryn S. Kuhar

Improvements include creating flexible classrooms and spaces for larger teaching and public events in the library. The University also plans to connect Houghton to other libraries, like Pusey.

Whitehead said that the administration is still working on the capital planning to finance the project and fit it within the FAS and University’s budgets, a large portion of which comes from fundraising.

Although the University is currently weathering a donor exodus, Whitehead said that she’d “like to believe that people are still interested in libraries.”

Elmer said that he thinks this project is an opportunity to attract donors “who really care about library collections” and spaces.

“This is the kind of investment that the value is so very clear,” he said.

As plans for this project solidify, one of the biggest challenges will be considering the unique needs of each library.

“Different library users have very different needs and styles of working,” Elmer said. “I think that one challenge for this new design phase is figuring out how to balance the different kinds of needs.”

—Staff writer Neeraja S. Kumar can be reached at neeraja.kumar@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Annabel M. Yu can be reached at annabel.yu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @annabelmyu.

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MuseumsLibrariesUniversity FinancesUniversityLamontFront Middle FeatureSpaceCampus Projects

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