This month Harvard commemorates the 100th anniversary of the opening of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, the university’s flagship and still the largest university library in the world. Along with lectures and events celebrating the library’s life, the university offered the following “ode,” narrated by actor and Harvard alum John Lithgow:
To mark the completion of an extensive five-year Widener renovation project in 2004, the Harvard College Library published Widener: Biography of a Library. The book, written by then-Harvard Library Bulletin editor and current metaLAB Associate Director Matthew Battles, tells the story of Widener as that of higher education itself in the midst of the social, political, and cultural tumult of the twentieth century. It’s above all, though, the story of an unsung institution at the center of all that the university was and has become:
The story of Widener is as much the tale of the students, staff, and scholars who used it as it is the record of benefactors and collections. In the life of a library so richly faceted as Widener, one dimension is as irreplaceable as the other. The life of Widener emerges from the archival traces of those people who worked in and used the library; in library rules and regulations; in the letters of students and staff; in the notes and reports of its caretakers; in the photographs and drawings of it, inside and out. Amid its products—the stream of publication, lectures, and courses that flow from it—traces of Widener and its history are obscure. In our historical sensibility, libraries are transmitters not subjects, of historical knowledge. Historian Alistair Black has called the library a transparent institution—its condition is that of medium, not message, and still less messenger.
Battles’s metaLAB home has done much to further our thinking on libraries lately, from The Library Beyond the Book, by Battles and his metaLAB colleague Jeffrey Schnapp, to Cold Storage, a terrific documentary look at Harvard’s offsite book depository, to the drone-shot footage documenting the very scale of Harvard’s collections, as seen in both Cold Storage and Lithgow’s ode above.