In the very early morning hours of April 15, 1912, in the North Atlantic, about 400 miles south of Newfoundland’s Grand Banks, young Harry Elkins Widener (Harvard Class of 1907) perished with his father during the sinking of the ill-fated RMS Titanic.
The 27-year-old scion of the wealthy Philadelphia Widener family had developed into an avid book collector during his years at Harvard, and his family could well afford to indulge his passion with gifts of rare and expensive books. By the time of his death, Harry had managed to amass thousands of volumes. In his will, he left instructions for his substantial library to be donated to Harvard University, under the able guidance of his mother (who, having been rescued from a lifeboat by the RMS Carpathia, survived the Titanic’s maiden voyage).
Eleanor Elkins Widener brought a $3.5 million endowment and the family’s favorite architect, Horace Trumbauer, to the task of what was initially to be a small and intimate library preserving her son’s collection, as well as his study. Seeing an opportunity for a significant addition to the college campus, however, both the University president and librarian pressed for a more substantial structure.
The resulting Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library — most often referred to on campus simply as Widener Library — is an imposing colonnaded Classical presence in the Beaux-Arts style, several stories high. Formed of a core structure of brick, and ringed by stately two-story columns, the library presents a vast broad staircase at its main entrance. It is situated along the southern flank of Tercentenary Theatre, that portion of Old Harvard Yard that was dedicated in 1936 upon the 300th Anniversary of the University’s founding as the site of all future Harvard commencement ceremonies.
With roughly 3 million volumes (including one of the original Gutenberg Bibles) on its nearly 60 miles of shelving, the Widener Library is the core of the world’s largest university library system —over 15.5 million volumes overall. The library also houses many specialty collections of varied world cultures. Centerpiece of the structure, just inside its main entrance, is a preserved replica of young Harry’s opulent home study. Upon commencement day of 1915, the completed Widener Library was officially and ceremoniously opened. It took over 3 months for all of the Library’s collection of books to be brought to the new Library from their various storage places about campus.
As a restriction on the endowment given to Harvard, Mrs. Widener dictated that the originally-designed library should neither be crowded by adjoining structures, nor substantially altered on its exterior. Therefore, as a massive renovation and expansion was undertaken beginning in the late 1990s, the basement and sub-basement levels of the Library were expanded considerably beneath Tercentenary Theatre, and thus remain hidden from view today.