Harvard Library

To President Drew Gilpin Faust We the undersigned have drawn hope from the fact that Harvard has initiated a much-needed capital campaign. And yet we are concerned that the campaign has not announced or even hinted at any fund-raising for the Harvard Library. Perhaps very specific plans are underway for such fund-raising; we hope so. To assist with that planning, we respectfully wish to remind those who are directly involved in fund-raising that funding for libraries was central to at least two major historical gifts to our institution. In this 375th anniversary year of Harvard’s founding, we recall that the college was established with an initial £400 voted from public funds, but also with private donations of books valued at £200. These library resources represented one-third of the cost of setting up the college. (John Harvard later supplied £779 and 400 additional books, with a similarly high proportion of books to money.) Moreover, in this 100th anniversary year of the sinking of SS Titanic, it is equally pertinent to remember that Harry Elkins Widener’s grieving mother made an extraordinarily generous contribution to our institution in building the eponymous library as a memorial to her son and his interest in books. That monument required just over $4 million then, which, considering inflation as well as the differential inflation in building costs, might be equivalent to as much as $1.5 billion now. The library needs at least as much financial support today as its ancestors did in 1637 or 1912. All of the major components of a modern research library—printed items, electronic resources, skilled librarians, and storage space—represent mounting costs. (Co-operation with other libraries and sharing of resources, which are often represented as cost-cutting measures, require new funding, as well.) And yet since 1981, support for the Harvard Library has slipped below what has been allotted at our peer institutions. The erosion may already have begun to compromise Harvard’s excellence; if allowed to continue, it will certainly do so, and decisions made now that will guarantee that decline will stand in marked contrast to earlier moments in Harvard’s history. For these reasons, we ask you to ensure that the libraries will be a top priority within the capital campaign, by putting into place concrete and carefully planned goals and strategies, preparatory to announcing an ambitious fund-raising target for the Harvard Library, as soon as the campaign moves beyond its quiet phase. It seems to us that the target should be suitably reminiscent of the large if not titanic proportions of earlier donations to Harvard’s libraries.

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