By Tom Hyry, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library
At 4:00 this afternoon, August 9, 2019, Houghton Library closed its doors.
Over the next 13 months, we will embark on a renovation that will make our spaces more accessible, welcoming, and useful for modern research and teaching. The library will suspend services for two weeks as our reading room operation and many of our staff move to temporary quarters in Widener Library. Our interim reading room will open on August 26 in the space formerly occupied by the Current Periodicals Reading Room in Widener, which, rather poetically, was once the “Treasure Room” where Harvard College’s rare book and manuscript collections were housed before Houghton opened.
This is an historic day for Houghton Library, which has never been closed for more than a short period of time, and provides a moment to reflect upon our past, present and future.
Houghton opened seventy-seven and a half years ago, on February 28, 1942, with—given the backdrop of World War II—an appropriately modest celebration led by Harvard President James Conant, our great benefactor Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., and founding Librarian William A. Jackson. Harvard’s rare book and manuscript collections had outgrown the space in the Treasure Room and a group of visionary librarians, administrators, and donors responded by joining together to create Houghton, the nation’s first university library specifically built to house rare books and manuscripts.
The new building featured neo-Georgian architecture with some art deco flair, and its construction pioneered the use of advanced climate control measures to ensure optimal preservation conditions for the precious collection held by the library. The building included a handsome lobby to greet visitors, a reading room to serve researchers, a dedicated room for exhibitions and programs, two stories of stacks to house the growing collection, as well as ample space for librarians and curators and rooms for seminars and meetings. Houghton’s second floor opened with a room dedicated to John Keats, featuring the collection newly donated by Arthur Houghton which added to existing holdings from the collection of Amy Lowell, whose non-Keats collection proudly occupies a second room. Over the years, new rooms were added to the second floor to house the Emily Dickinson collection, the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson, and the William King Richardson collection.
Throughout Houghton’s history our venerable building has served us well, hosting generations of librarians, researchers, faculty, students, and visitors. While the fundamental mission of the library has remained relatively consistent all this time, the methods we utilize and the audiences we serve have grown and changed. Today, we envision Houghton as an intellectual center that enables advanced research in a broad set of disciplines, teaching and learning based on faculty and student interaction with primary sources, and cultural enrichment for a diverse set of audiences on the Harvard campus and in surrounding communities. Our reach extends well beyond our physical limits with the collections we make available in digital form and through our publications program, but the Houghton building remains central to all that we do.
The renovated Houghton will feature a new exhibition and display space in the lobby, consultation and group study spaces in the reading room, and a myriad of features that will improve physical accessibility throughout the building, including a remodeled entrance, a new elevator, renovated rest rooms, and more. We want everyone who visits Houghton to feel welcome and inspired—to teach, research, and learn, and we think that the renovated spaces will play a significant role in conveying that more open environment.
For those of us who love Houghton Library, today brings excitement as we look forward to the greatest transformation the building has seen in 77 years. At the same time, we say goodbye with respect, gratitude, and affection for many aspects of the library as it has been. Our renovated spaces will enable us to carry the traditions of the library forward while forging new connections, possibilities, and creations. We invite you to continue using Houghton collections in Widener Library over the next year, and to celebrate with us when we reopen in September 2020.