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Widener: Biography of a Library (review)

From: Libraries & Culture
Volume 41, Number 2, Spring 2006
pp. 272-273 | 10.1353/lac.2006.0024

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Libraries & Culture 41.2 (2006) 272-273

Widener: Biography of a Library. By Matthew Battles. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004. xi, 201 pp. $50.00. ISBN 0-674-01668-8.

In the preface of Widener: Biography of a Library Matthew Battles announces that "this is not a scholarly book" (x). Despite his accompanying caveat about his reliance on "personal intuition," it would be a cold scholar indeed who could not appreciate the book that follows: it is at heart an extended love letter to a library. There are few sentiments so widely shared among academics of every discipline as a love of libraries, and the author taps neatly into that vein of shared feeling to drive his treatment of the history of Harvard's most venerable library.

The book is divided into three sections. The first of these, "Decease Calls Me Forth," recounts the earliest history of the Widener, beginning with a brief survey of the weaknesses of its predecessor, a Gothic structure called Gore Hall that housed the library collections through the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. The rationale for a new library to replace Gore Hall, the process of finding a sponsor for the project, designing the new building, and dealing with library functions during the construction of the Widener are all described in detail. The section concludes when the last book was moved into the newly finished Widener building.

The second portion of the book, "Colossus," deals with the Widener's use and evolution during the period between May 1915, when the building was dedicated, and 1977. The topics discussed in this longest of the three divisions in the book include the ongoing problems of library administration, the rapidly increasing size of the collection, debates over the purpose and utility of the library, and social issues such as gender discrimination inside the library and the upheavals of the 1960s outside it. The final section, "Monumentally Inviting," treats the history of the Widener since 1977 up to the completion of its most recent renovation in the spring of 2004. This concluding chapter differs notably from the others in its tenor and focus.

The first two sections take the form of historical narrative, framing the story of the Widener library primarily in terms of the personalities of those involved in its creation and operation; the dramatis personae include Harvard presidents Charles Eliot and A. Lawrence Lowell, longtime curator Frank Carney, the official librarian, William Coolidge Lane, and, of course, Eleanor Elkins Widener, who funded the construction of the library as a memorial for her son Harry, who perished in the sinking of the Titanic. Although the author includes anecdotes concerning the construction and use of the Widener, such as the marked inadequacy of the lavatories (59) and perennial infighting among the faculty for space in the building's studies (72–76), the personalities of its caretakers clearly serve as the driving force behind both the history and the narrative. "Monumentally Inviting," by contrast, is almost entirely concerned with impersonal changes in the administration and use of the library, for example, the creation of an off-site archival facility and innovations in classification and cataloging. The names of the actors in these developments are certainly mentioned but do not invite the sort of personal identification and empathy granted to Frank Carney and Eleanor Widener. The narrative remains formal and impersonal throughout, except when the author rather self-consciously injects a firsthand account of the renovation, the completion of which prompted the writing of this book.

This handsome book is lavishly illustrated throughout, featuring sixty-five insets and full-page reproductions of relevant photographs and documents, many in color. The figures range from portraits of notable individuals connected to the library, such as the eponymous Harry Elkins Widener, to architectural schematics, outmoded library documents such as a "stack pass," and, of course, interior and exterior shots of the Widener itself. The illustrations serve to make the accompanying narrative more concrete and tangible than it might otherwise have been.

In general, this is an interesting and well-executed book. The text suffers from uneven proofing, as evidenced by the surprising number of spelling errors that...