The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library is steeped in history. The library was a gift from Harry’s mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener, in honor of her son. Harry was born in 1885 and from a young age, was fascinated by books. As he grew older, he became a full on bibliophile (not as dirty as it sounds), even adding a Shakespeare Folio and a Gutenberg Bible to his collection of rare books. Graduating from Harvard in 1907, he took frequent trips to Europe, hunting for new books. Unfortunately, on the way home, Harry perished on the Titanic with many of his books as well. I know what you are thinking and, no, he was not depicted in the movie Titanic.
Soon after the death of her son, Eleanor Elkins Widener made a $3.5 million donation to Harvard to build a library in honor of her son. After two years of construction, the building opened in 1915. Designed by Horace Trumbauer and his pioneering African-American Chief Designer Julian Abele, the enormous library contains over 3.2 million volumes on over 5 miles of bookshelves. In the middle of the library is the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Room, which contains the remaining collection of the man himself.
By 1930, 15 years after the library first opened, all the shelves in the library had been filled. To combat the growing need for shelf space, Harvard built more libraries to house all of their books. The Widener library remains the central library within the Harvard College Libraries.
Currently, the Widener Memorial Library houses the collections of literature and history, folklore, linguistics, economics, sociology, philosophy, and psychology. Each year, the Harvard College Libraries acquire over 60,000 volumes.
Legend says that Eleanor Elkins Widener made all the men wanting to graduate from Harvard learn to swim. She did not want the boys to experience the fate that befell her son. To confirm or bust this legend, visit our Video page (under Tomfoolery), and look for the July 8th, 2013 “Fact or Fiction” on this subject!