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An ‘Urgent Need’: Professors Call for Renovations to Harvard-Yenching Library

The Harvard-Yenching Library was established in 1928 and is the primary location for East Asia-related collections at Harvard University. Professors who frequent the library said it is in dire need of renovations.
The Harvard-Yenching Library was established in 1928 and is the primary location for East Asia-related collections at Harvard University. Professors who frequent the library said it is in dire need of renovations. By Arwen Zhang
By Neeraja S. Kumar and Annabel M. Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

Earlier this month, Harvard announced plans to renovate four major libraries ahead of the University’s 400th anniversary. But some said the Harvard-Yenching Library, which was absent from the list, is in critical need of repair.

Jie Li ’01, professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, said that, compared to Widener and Lamont, two of the libraries set for renovations, the need to renovate Yenching Library “is actually much more dire.”

“The whole infrastructure of this building has not changed for the last half century,” Li said. “The working conditions of our librarians is in a very bad state.”

Though Harvard-Yenching holds one of the largest collections of volumes on East Asian studies, including 1.6 million rare East Asian books, Li and James Robson — the incoming director of the Harvard-Yenching Institute — said its aging infrastructure does not do its collection justice.

Robson, who begins his tenure on July 1, said “a complete rebuild” was necessary to address the “dire state” of the library — adding that addressing the library’s infrastructure is a “concrete goal” of his.

“People visit the Harvard-Yenching Library from all over the world, including from Asia, because we have things in that collection, which are not available anywhere else in the world,” Robson said. “Yet, when you walk into it, you would not know that.”

Robson said he hopes to collaborate with Harvard Library Vice President Martha Whitehead to make the Yenching Library “the premier library that it can be.”

In an interview with The Crimson earlier this month, Whitehead also described renovation of the Yenching Library as a “high priority.”

Robson hopes to begin plans and fundraising for this project ahead of the Harvard-Yenching Institute’s 100th anniversary in 2028.

“This seemed to me like a perfect auspicious occasion to really launch an effort,” he said.

However, there have not been many discussions or planning of renovations to Harvard-Yenching thus far.

Li, a member of the Yenching library’s faculty advisory committee, said she doesn’t “recall any discussions of actual physical renovations of the library,” aside from recognizing the general need for them.

In an email to The Crimson, Harvard Library spokesperson Tenzin Dickie wrote that while the current feasibility plans for library renovations does not include Yenching, Harvard Library “will continue to make enhancements to the space in partnership with FAS facilities.”

Both Robson and Li recounted that flooding in the Yenching library during severe rainfall this past summer caused water damage and mold to grow on the library’s books.

“That’s just not acceptable for a first class collection like the Harvard-Yenching Library,” Robson said.

In addition to the library’s basement being flooded four times, Li also commented on the bad air quality for a library with “such precious resources.”

“There’s a huge disjunction, in a way, between the amazing people, the staff, and the collection at the library, on the one hand, and the physical infrastructure of the library,” Li said.

Robson would also like to see the library, which is largely unpopular and unknown among students, become a more welcoming study space for undergraduate students. He said the addition of a reading room could make the library a more “appealing destination.”

Currently, the only study spaces in the library are small desk areas in the stack collections, which Li described as cramped and dimly lit.

As a unique hub of special collections and resources from East Asia, Robson believes the Yenching Library has the potential to “open people's eyes to things that they don’t know much about.”

But as of now, the library is in need of a better facility to house its cutting-edge collections, he said.

“One could justifiably call it an urgent need,” Robson said.

—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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FASLibrariesEast Asian LanguagesCampus Projects