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Remarks of Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers, Widener Library Celebration Dinner

Widener Library, Cambridge, Mass.

There is a lesson that we should all learn when we walk around this remarkable building. It is something that I learned on my tour of Widener about a month ago with Nancy Cline. And the lesson is this: the right way to do things is to do them in the best possible way.

Thanks to all of you, we have done just that. We didn’t do half a job. We didn’t cut the costs on materials. We didn’t decide that it wasn’t important to provide for technology. We did it right, and people many years from now are going to be glad you made that possible.

Here, amid Widener Library’s miles of shelves, we gather in the presence of some of the most daring minds and most compelling voices in history.

Cervantes resides on Level C-West, six floors below Confucius and seven below Sophocles.

Chaucer and Jane Austen are neighbors on Level 1-East, two floors below W.E.B. Du Bois and two above Charles Darwin and Marie Curie.

We celebrate tonight not just a building, not just a place, but a central and indispensable element in the enterprise of learning: the library, and all of the living treasures that it holds for us, and for generations past and future.

We are part of something very large, very profound and more important than ever. We live in a time that some call an electronic age, when computers and the Internet are said to be transforming the way we learn.

At such a time, let us take this occasion to affirm the matchless power of the book to change the life of the scholar who reads the book, to change the life of our nation, and to change the world.

Let us recognize our responsibility to create, nurture, and sustain opportunities for solitary study and the kind of quiet contemplation of texts that elevates our gaze and lengthens our view.

We live in a time of enormous excitement in the sciences, when genomes and stem cells and nanotechnology all offer the promise of changing the way we live.

At such a time, let us particularly recognize and reaffirm that at the very heart of the university lies an enduring commitment to humanistic learning that no other institution in our society maintains, a commitment to forms of understanding that we can never have – no matter what progress science may make – without intensive immersion in the study of literature, philosophy, and language, of history, religion, music and art.

Harvard’s Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory in years past, Archibald MacLeish, in a celebrated essay on the library, wrote of books as “reports” on “the mystery of things.” The “true library,” wrote MacLeish, brings these “reports” into “a kind of wholeness.” The library stands as “a silent and enduring affirmation that the great Reports still speak, and not alone but somehow all together.”

Since its very beginning, this University has taken great pride in bringing those great reports together.

Three hundred and sixty-six years ago, a benefactor left half of his estate to a fledgling college in a cow yard. What is more, he gave that college the entire contents of his library, some 400 volumes. It is for that act of munificence – for that supreme expression of confidence in the importance of learning and in the importance of libraries to learning – that this College and this University are named.

And so,

to each of you who has ever taken down a book from Widener’s shelves,

to each of you who has helped make it possible for those books to sit on those shelves and to educate those who open them,

to each of you who has written one of those books, or has written about one of those books, or has been moved by one of those books to think new thoughts or pursue new paths,

to each of you who has recognized what a timeless treasure we have in Widener Library and who has contributed in some way to making it great,

and to Katherine Loker, who, through her generosity and in the noble tradition of John Harvard and Eleanor Elkins Widener, has brought new life and light to this majestic hall,

let me say – personally and on behalf of the University – thank you.

This library was constructed in 1915. It was a complicated and difficult time in the world, when wisdom was needed, when the lessons of the past needed to be learned and to be heeded, and when the choices this nation made would shape and influence the histories of people everywhere. The ideas collected in this library made an important and great contribution to the succeeding century.

This library was reconstructed in 2004. It is again a difficult time in the world.

Let us join in the hope that this extraordinary library can look forward to many more decades of imaginative learning, inspiration, and wisdom.

And may it continue to demonstrate, from day to day and from generation to generation, the power of those great reports in the stacks below both to deepen and to enlighten the mystery of things, that it may point us closer towards the goal we will never fully reach: Veritas.

Thank you very much.