As Libraries Evolve, HCL Head Leaves

Widener at Sunrise
Matthew D Moellman

A view of Widener Library from Harvard Yard shortly after sunrise.

Nancy M. Cline oversees Harvard College Library's 12 million volumes, but she maintains a more modest stock of antiquated collection catalogs and thick Chinese books from Yenching Library in her office.

Below the books on the shelf, Cline’s white hardhat, lettered with bold "HCL" on the front, projects out, a memento of the large-scale restoration of the Widener Library building that she led as head of Harvard College Library.

The physical renovation of Widener was part of Cline’s larger vision to modernize HCL—the largest unit in the University library system—that included programs like a high-tech conservation initiative housed in Widener basement.


But after nearly 15 years, Cline will leave this summer as her position is folded into the newly centralized administrative structure of the University-wide system.

Colleagues say that Cline’s tenure has set the stage for the University’s ongoing overhaul of the largest private library system in the world.

"It’s been an important period in the history of the academic library in the world. The way people use libraries has changed radically in those years," says William P. Stoneman, head of Houghton Library, which houses Harvard’s primary collection of rare books. "The Harvard Library has kept up in large part because of Nancy Cline."

But at this time of major university-level library restructuring, Cline is headed out in June.

"It’s a bittersweet moment," Cline says.


The restoration of Widener Library—the iconic center of the University’s entire system—took five years, as millions of books cycled through the floors of the library and workers worked on specific flights.

"It was one of the great feats of librarianship," Director of the Harvard Library Robert C. Darnton ’60 says of Cline’s leadership through the renovation.

Darnton remembers when Samuel C. Butler ’51, a former president of the University Board of Overseers and one of the former chairs of the New York Public Library, took him aside as the professor was about to leave his post at Princeton to join Harvard.

"And he said, ‘Just do whatever Nancy Cline says you should do, and you’ll be all right,’" he says. "And that was great advice."