The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, commonly known as Widener Library, is the primary building of the library system of Harvard University. Located on the south side of Harvard Yard directly across from Memorial Church, Widener serves as the centerpiece of the 15.6 million-volume Harvard University Library system, the largest university library system in the world. The 320,000-square-foot Beaux-Arts brick building houses 57 miles of bookshelves and 3 million volumes. Among them is one of the few remaining perfect copies of the Gutenberg Bible. Widener includes many special collections, including African, American, Asian, Germanic, Judaic, Iberian, Middle Eastern, Modern Greek, and Slavic.
Widener Library, which opened with a solemn ceremony on June 24, 1915, commemorates Harry Elkins Widener (born January 3, 1885 in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania), a 1907 Harvard graduate, who was a book collector and victim of the Titanic disaster. His mother, Eleanor Elkins, made a $3.5 million donation to Harvard University to build a library named after him. The library was designed by Horace Trumbauer & Associates, the architect of many private houses for the intertwined Elkins and Widener families of Philadelphia including the renowned Lynnewood Hall. The Associate responsible for designing the Widener Library was the chief designer of the firm, architect Julian F. Abele, the first major African American architect.
From approximately 1997-2004, the Widener Library underwent a comprehensive renovation costing $97 million that included: adding fire suppression systems, adding air conditioning, enclosing light courts, and remodeling the stacks and public spaces. According to a campus legend, under the terms of the Widener family donation, the exterior of the library is never to be altered, or else ownership of the building reverts to the city of Cambridge. Because of this, according to the legend, Harvard has been always been limited and creative in its renovation options, including the building of a causeway to neighboring Houghton Library through what was a large window (though this bridge existed well before the present renovation).
There is a legend at Harvard that in order to prevent what befell Widener from happening to another student, all students of Harvard College are required to prove that they can swim before they are allowed to graduate. While Harvard did implement a swimming test in the 1920s, it had nothing to do with Widener, and the swim test is no longer required of students. The urban legend website Snopes.com gives additional details of why this urban myth is not true.