Needed Renovations Planned For Widener

When Dean of the Faculty Jeremy R. Knowles addressed the Faculty in his annual letter in January, one of his missive's more remarkable lines referred to the University's signature library.

"The odor of Widener's deeper recesses, while providing olfactory nostalgia to generations of readers, is actually the smell of decaying books," he wrote.

This problem--book decay due to heat, humidity and sunlight in Widener's non-climate-controlled stacks--will soon be tackled as Harvard's largest library receives its most significant renovation ever.

And, while little change will be visible from the outside, the massive project has been likened to Boston's "Big Dig" to place the city's Central Artery underground.

The project, slated to begin in June and cost $52 million, will include the addition of air conditioning, a sprinkler system, a new fire detection system and two new reading rooms.

The renovations will begin sometime after commencement with the erection of a sky crane at the Widener gate on Mass. Ave.

"[We have been] in up to here with the planning. It's the biggest project any of us will ever be involved in," says Nancy M. Cline, Larsen librarian of Harvard College.

"There are new construction projects here that would not impact as much...on the campus."

Susan A. Lee, Cline's deputy in charge of planning and administration says the project is one of the biggest library renovation projects ever.

By comparison, Yale's recent renovation of its main library, Sterling Memorial, cost just over $30 million.

Faculty say the massive size of this project is justified by the potential consequences should the books continue to decay.

"It would be intellectual suicide not to go ahead with this project," wrote James Engell, professor of English and comparative literature.

Library officials say they are attempting to learn from the experiences of other major research libraries which have undergone similar renovations.Columbia University is currently working on asimilar project.

They also looked to the experience at LangdellLibrary at Harvard Law School, which closed for ayear while it was renovated earlier this decade.

But because it shut down, Langdell offers fewlessons for Harvard's biggest library, which hasno plans to close and has exponentially more booksthan its law school counterpart.

"We can't do a Langdell. [There is] no place inthe world to shelve that many books [and] we justcan't close it," says Sidney Verba '53, directorof the University library and PforzheimerUniversity professor.

Moving the Books

The most difficult problem then has beencooking up a way to move the books around insideWidener while construction workers invade thebuilding.

According to Lee, Yale's project provided apowerful example of what not to do. For Sterling,Yale left its books on the stacks and attempted towork around them.

"They wound up with a mess on their hands," Leesays.

That mess was composed of metal filings on thebooks and accumulations of dirt and dust on thevolumes.

According to Cline, Yale now plans to spend $1million this year cleaning up the miss, includinghand-vacuuming of each of the library 3.75 millionbooks.

Harvard aims to do its Ivy counterpart onebetter.

"I'm feeling very confident that we'll do thisproject and we'll do it with well with nowherenear the disaster as what happened at Yale," saysDavid A. Zewinski '76, associate dean for physicalresources and planning in FAS.

The University plans to divide each ofWidener's ten stack levels into two sections, witheach of these 20 sections containing roughly 2.5miles of shelves and 300,000 books.

The process of shifting the books will worklike this: D-level will first be cleared asoverflow space, with half of its current booksshifted to Pusey library and half sent to theHarvard Depository.

The then-empty D-level will be renovated first.Then, as renovations move up the building, thefloor being worked on will have its books shiftedto the then-empty space in D.

In this way, library officials plan to have thebooks remain accessible in their temporarylocations throughout the process except when theyare in transit.

The renovations are expected to take betweenthree and four weeks per section, with theexception of D-level, whose extensive renovationswill begin the project with three to four monthsof work.

"It's a huge logistical operation, but they areconfident they can do it," Zewinski says.

Smoked Out

When Widener was built it was made of the mostlavish materials available: a thenstate-of-the-art stack system and tons of marbleand granite.

It was thought that with such quality materialsthe library would not burn--and administrators atthe time did not want to put a sprinkler systemthat in the event of a fire would destroy thebooks with water.

"You have marble, you have steel, you havebrick and you thought that with tightly packedbooks there could not be a fire, Cline says. Andthe library's planners did not prepare for one.

An arson fire in the early 1990s that destroyedmuch of the Los Angeles public library'scollection altered that conventional wisdom.Library officials at Harvard and nationwide beganto re-examine their notions about the security oftheir collections.

One myth about Widener holds that the libraryuses an oxygen-suppressant system, which wouldspray a gas like halon to snuff out the fire butmake it impossible for humans inside to breathe.

Not true, Cline says.

There is a halon system in Pusey--one thataccidentally discharged over the summer, resultingin a day-long evacuation. But those systems havesince been outlawed and Pusey's will be replacedsoon.

Additionally, the fear of water on books ismuch less acute now that technology allows wetbooks to be repaired, while burned books cannotbe.

Permanent Changes

The renovation also seeks to address some ofthe other shortcomings of the original design.

The original notion that light was good forbooks has since been proved wrong-it hastens theirdecay.

Currently the temperature and humidity swingwildly, with temperatures in some areas topping 80degrees on hot summer days. According to Zewinski,it is hoped that the project results in improvedtemperature control throughout the library-withthe stacks kept at 68 degrees and 35 percentrelative humidity.

Other aspects of the project will face greaterdifficulties. Because the stacks are structuralcomponents of the building, supporting much of itsweight, they cannot be tampered with to anysignificant degree.

Still, nearly 9,000 feet of stack space will belost in the renovations to allow for new stairsand elevators.

"The physical construction is really unique.You can't remove floors or always widen anelevator, you can't get rid of a couple ofstacks, you can't widen the aisles," Lee says.

Another obstacle is that the library will haveto conform to some laws that, perhaps weren'tdesigned for a building of its size and purpose.

According to new fire laws, a library ofWidener's size must have the ability to evacuate1,500 people, 150 for each stack level and wellover the numbers the library contains at any time.

Other Details

Since the library intends to remain open duringthe construction process, library officials saythey have spent a lot of time orientingconstruction workers to the labyrinthinelibrary-and reminding them that people will beworking as they work.

Still, they realize that some patrons will notwant to work in the library given the necessarilyincreased noise.

In response they say that they are notifyingother libraries to prepare to handle the overflowof patrons from Widener, and that they will notifystudents of underused facilities around campus.

Another potential complication to therenovations is that Harvard's library collectionis not insured. The buildings are--through theUniversity--but the collection itself has beencalled "priceless and irreplaceable," and theUniversity has to swallow the loss if thecollections are damaged.

Additionally, the library purchases $10 millionin new materials a year, so the new constructionis needed to "protect what we have, but [also]what we will," says Beth S. Brainard,Communications and Public Information Officer forthe Harvard College Library.

But even after this massive construction, thelibrary's renovators have been told to allow roomfor more changes in the future. Library officialssay the circulation area and Loker reading roommay be the next part of Widener to need afacelift.CrimsonGrant S. QuashaHOME OF THE STACKS:Renovations arescheduled to begin at Widener library this June tosave the more than 13 million books it houses.