Lamont Library

Henry Weston Farnsworth Room

The Farnsworth Room houses an eclectic leisure reading collection for Harvard undergraduates of about 4,000 volumes. On its shelves are mysteries, science fiction, travel books, biographies, literary bestsellers, Harvardiana, and other interesting odds and ends. We consider the Farnsworth Room a special undergraduate space within the undergraduate library, and we actively solicit book suggestions from Harvard students.

Originally located in Widener Library, to the right of the main entrance (now the Office of the Librarian), the Farnsworth Room moved to its present quarters in Lamont Library, on the third floor shortly after Lamont opened in January 1949. The Room had been a gift from the family of Henry Weston Farnsworth '12 — newspaper correspondent, world traveler, adventure-seeker, avid reader, and member of the French Foreign Legion — who was killed in action at Bois Sabot in France in September 1915. The Farnsworth Room was dedicated on December 5, 1916, four full months before the United States officially entered the Great War, making it quite possibly the country's first memorial to an American who lost his life in WWI.

However, the Farnsworth Room marks a milestone at Harvard — and in the history of libraries more generally — for another reason. The Farnsworth Room housed the very first extracurricular reading collection at an American college or university. The books on its shelves were designed to be those "such as any undergraduate might have bought" for himself or would be apt to read if he happened upon them. The Farnsworth Room never pretended to offer the "best reading" — just "a good collection in which to browse, where an hour may be passed with pleasure and a chance of profit."

"All that is hoped," Professor A. C. Coolidge remarked in his dedication speech, "is that this room will add year by year to the pleasure with which some men look back upon their undergraduate days, because they, like Henry Farnsworth, learned to fill in their leisure with reading, in or out of the trenches."

The Farnsworth Room has been used and fondly remembered by Harvard students for nearly six decades. In its early years, alumni would often return there to look again for their favorite Farnsworth books; novelist Thomas Wolfe remembered it as the place where he'd learned most as a Harvard undergraduate. The Farnsworth Room soon became a model of innovative library service for academic institutions across the country. Many followed Harvard's example by establishing undergraduate browsing rooms of their own during the 1920s and 1930s.

The Farnsworth Room also contains a special collection of published works of Corliss Lamont (1902–1995), son of Thomas W. Lamont and graduate of the Class of 1920. Corliss Lamont was an author, educator, civil libertarian, and president emeritus of the American Humanist Association.

Return to Top