Campus & Community

A new vision for Houghton Library

Original 1940 blueprint for Harvard's Houghton Library.

Houghton Library’s original blueprint from 1940 by Perry, Shaw and Hepburn, Architects.

Images courtesy of Houghton Library

5 min read

Planned renovation will improve research and exhibition facilities

An upcoming renovation to Houghton Library will modernize its research and teaching facilities, expand its exhibition galleries, improve physical access to its spaces and holdings, and create a more welcoming, inviting, and accessible environment.

The renovation represents a key component of a larger vision for the rare books library, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. It serves as a research center and teaching laboratory for students and faculty across many disciplines that use primary sources, hosting nearly 300 class visits each year and programming a series of exhibitions and events that draw a range of visitors from across Harvard and surrounding communities. To expand its reach vastly, the library’s digitization efforts have placed its collections within reach of researchers around the world.

“We want all of Houghton Library — the collections, the building, and our expert staff — to generate interest in and passion for the humanities, the arts, the social sciences, and more,” said Thomas Hyry, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library. “Our efforts to create a more inclusive atmosphere and to increase access to Houghton’s collections and services will ensure the library becomes an even more active and highly valued resource for Harvard and the world at large.”

The renovations were made possible through generous donations, including a major gift from philanthropist and bibliophile Peter J. Solomon ’60, M.B.A. ’63, and his wife, Susan, whose extensive collection of rare and treasured children’s literature and illustrations provided the catalyst for the renovation. The Solomon collection includes a copy of the suppressed first edition of “Alice in Wonderland,” as well as additional works by Lewis Carroll, Beatrix Potter, Edward Lear, and other authors. The Solomons’ promised donation sparked an effort to make Houghton more welcoming to the Harvard community and visitors alike.

Rendering of Houghton Library showing ramped entrance, landscape design.

Plans include a fully accessible entrance with ramped walkways and new trees and plantings.

Renderings courtesy of Ann Beha Architects

Rendering of Houghton Library renovation, exterior, view from Loeb House.
Rendering of Houghton Library renovation, exterior.

“Peter’s gift is a testament to his profound love of books, his belief in the power of literature to change lives, and the essential role of the library in the life of the University and in society at large,” said Sarah E. Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library and University librarian and Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “There are so many people his generous support will affect: students, faculty, researchers, and visitors from around the world, and of course the staff who support the critical work of the library. I know our gratitude is deep.”

“We wanted our collection to be where it would join similar holdings and be enjoyed by the widest possible audience,” Solomon said. “Houghton houses extraordinary material and enjoys a prime location within the Yard, but more Harvard students should explore its treasures.

“Redesigning the entrance, integrating the building more prominently into its surroundings, and creating a more dynamic set of interior spaces will encourage greater appreciation of the library,” he added.

Construction will begin next September, and the building will be closed until September 2020. During renovations, the Houghton Reading Room will return to its original location, the Periodicals Reading Room in Widener Library. Classrooms in Widener Library, Pusey Library, and Lamont Library will accommodate courses that use Houghton collections for teaching.

Houghton is working with Ann Beha Architects and partnering with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ Office of Physical Resources and Planning on the two-year project. The renovation will include redesigning the landscape between Quincy Street and the library entrance; replacing the daunting main entrance staircases with elegant paths at a wheelchair-accessible gradual incline; and connecting a plaza to the entrance, creating more space for people to gather outside. Natural light will be introduced to the entrance lobby, which will feature a dynamic exhibition gallery displaying materials drawn from the library’s collections. A new elevator will take visitors to the teaching spaces, exhibition gallery, and special thematic rooms on the second floor. Ground-floor restrooms will be remodeled and expanded. Improvements to Houghton’s reading room will include a soundproof entry and help-desk area, and an adjacent room where library users can work with materials in collaboration with library staff.

The plans have the enthusiastic support of the University, the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Harvard Library.

“Today’s libraries are much more deeply engaged in teaching and outreach, and in an era where digital information is so prevalent, connecting people with our special collections and original materials which resonate with the context of their time and form is a key goal of Harvard Library,” said Thomas. “As a member of the Harvard College Library and Harvard Library, Houghton plays an important role in opening up the magic of collections and libraries to all visitors, as well as supporting research and teaching.”