The deep walnut doors of Widener Library swing open easily but slam shut with a resounding thud that echoes around the grand entryway. The library is a vast building that holds many rooms for reading and studying, as well as an extensive collection of books hidden away in the Stacks. An imposing structure with long rows of steps to climb in front, the contrast between white marble columns and red brick walls makes Widener dominate the landscape of Harvard Yard.
Held up by numerous white stone columns marbled with milky veins of grey, the entry is a grand and beautiful testament to the value of education. But the clean white also seems cold and sterile, and in the empty space every misstep echoes, exposed for all to hear. The grand staircase leads forward and up to sister murals, fifteen feet tall, that guard another door. A golden chandelier is suspended below a domed skylight that shines softly on the pale stone, lighting the space up from within. Upstairs, many richly decorated, mahogany-paneled study chambers are filled with rows of students, ready to glare at the pupil who slams a book too loudly or has the audacity to sneeze. But while the empty spaces and vaulted rooms of Widener echo with the rich history of Harvard, the sweeping staircases and intricate ceiling moldings are only the beginning.
When you enter Widener for the first time, the Stacks can be very easy to overlook. While the architecture boldly asserts itself, the books themselves don’t appear at all. But through a small and unobtrusive door marked “circulation/stacks” is the
entrance to a world of the written word. The Stacks consist of ten separate floors of tall, narrow shelves, each level filled to bursting with cluttered shelves of old books. When the industrial and stone grey door to the Stacks is opened, you are greeted with a gust of stale air carrying the safe and welcoming scent of musty old leather books. The rows of books show only bindings, many ripping or crumbling at the seams from being lovingly read so many times, by so many people. Cranberry and emerald bindings decorated with gold stand out among the multitude of charcoal and deep leather books. Every volume holds a story in its pages, a vast collection of life experiences and knowledge written down for readers to explore. The books seem ancient and secret, the kind of volumes you expect to find ancient treasure maps or love letters that were never sent sewn within the covers. The structure of Widener; the giant murals, intricately carved scrollwork and soaring columns, are only half of the magic of the library. Within the books themselves is the true power, and true soul, of Widener.