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Librarians' Assembly Focuses on Renovation and Change

More than 75 members of the Harvard library community gathered on Thursday, May 20, at the Harvard Divinity School for the spring meeting of the Librarians' Assembly. The topic was "Building Change: The Evolution of the Library as a Physical Space," and on hand to speak were Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, librarian and deputy director of Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library; Susan Lee, associate librarian of Harvard College for administration and planning; and Nancy Cline, the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College.

Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library Sidney Verba began the meeting with his State of the Library address. Verba acknowledged the budget challenges of the past year, and reviewed some of the Library's recent milestones—the bequest of the Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson; the Weissman Preservation Center's renewed grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), which will be used for the reformatting of materials in the history of science; another project, undertaken jointly with Simmons and also funded by NEH, to train Iraqi librarians; and the Open Collections Program (OCP), designed to increase the availability of historical resources for teaching, learning, and research by selecting resources from the Harvard libraries in broad topic areas, putting them in digital format, and providing access to them through the web and the Harvard library catalogs.

Megan Sniffin-Marinoff described the Schlesinger's renovation, which had begun with an evaluation of the library's changing focus in the 60 years since its founding, and the need for physical changes as a result. "We came to the conclusion that we had become a full-blown special collections library, and a very important one at that, and the renovated space had to reflect our new phase as a library," she explained.

Susan Lee and Nancy Cline took the podium next, telling the story of the Widener Library overhaul. As with the Schlesinger, shifting priorities, technological advances, and a growing need to safeguard the collections were primary factors. Lee and Cline described the old Widener's outdated ventilation system and lack of fire safeguards, Lee noting that the initial push to renovate Widener originated with "a preservation concern."

Once the project was under way, it became clear that a prime opportunity existed to make further improvements. Since contractors would be working on nearly every area of the library anyway, "it seem[ed] reasonable to take a comprehensive approach to updating, cleaning, and restoring this historically significant building," Cline explained. "Our vision became that of providing both new and renovated reading spaces within the building, providing a logical separation of the noisy and interactive services, to keep that apart from the major research areas of the library, the reading rooms, and also to achieve a layout of user services that would respond more effectively to patterns and priorities of users' needs." New space was achieved by building reading rooms, staff space, and mechanical space into the lower areas of the light courts; additional new reading rooms were constructed, including one dedicated to newspaper microfilm; and the preservation and conservation services were provided with a much improved home, among other accomplishments.

"I know there are people around the University who would say that the subject of our meeting today was ridiculous, that we don't need it," Sidney Verba stated, noting that improvements in digital storage capabilities and the dramatic increase in material available digitally led some to question whether "a building for the library" was even necessary. "[But] the library as place remains as important as it ever was."

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Last modified on Tuesday, July 20, 2004.