Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

Nancy Cline Retires to Accolades

Nancy Cline photograph  

Nancy M. Cline, Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College


May 25, 2011 – When she retires from her post as the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College next month, efforts to sum up the career of Nancy Cline will invariably point to the massive, multi-year renovation of Widener Library as one of her greatest accomplishments. Such efforts, however, only scratch the surface of a career that has spanned dramatic change for Harvard’s libraries. In her 15-year tenure, Cline changed not just the physical appearance of the libraries, but the very nature of how patrons – whether students, faculty or researchers – interact with them.

An early advocate for bringing the digital world inside the walls of the library, Cline helped innovate new methods of preservation through digitization and pioneered new ways of delivering library materials to users all over the world, all while continuing to deliver service to Harvard students and faculty, and the wider academic community.


Harvard University President Drew Faust speaks during a recent reception to honor Nancy Cline. Looking on are, from left, Provost Steven E. Hyman, Professor Kathleen Coleman, Cline, FAS Dean Michael Smith, and Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and University Librarian.

“If we think about the time Nancy Cline has been at Harvard, and what we thought libraries were when she arrived, and what we now understand libraries to be – it’s nothing short of a complete revolution,” said Harvard University President Drew Gilpin Faust. “Nancy has been in the forefront of that change, has enabled Harvard’s libraries to sustain a leadership role in that change, and to adapt and grow in extraordinarily transformative times.

“What Harvard is, in no small part, is what its libraries are,” Faust continued. “This University is deeply dependent on its libraries, and Nancy has served on many national and international boards and committees, helping not just Harvard, but the wider world, to understand what has happened, and what is going to happen in the world of libraries. She has been a force in our digitization efforts, and in many of the other ways we have seized the future.”

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Arguably the most visible mark of Cline’s administration, the five-year Widener renovation was initiated with the goal of ensuring the long-term preservation and security of the collections. Every mechanical system in the building – from heating and ventilation to electrical, lighting and security systems – was upgraded, stacks were refurbished and millions of books rotated through the building to accommodate the work. In the second phase of the project, Widener’s interior and exterior were refurbished, and many of the library’s original architectural features were restored. Public spaces were also aligned according to user patterns and priorities, with noisier, interactive services separated from the reading rooms, where users prefer quiet.

“It is a stunning accomplishment,” Cline said, of the renovation. “It’s one of the things I’m most proud that we accomplished during my administration because it altered our concept of the libraries and what we could do. The libraries, and in particular the way we provide service to our patrons, would be very different today had we not done the Widener renovation.”

In addition to enhancing the physical preservation and security of the collections, the Widener renovation also paved the way for the growth of digitization as a new preservation tool. In the wake of the renovation, the Widener photography lab evolved from a studio focused on creating microfilm images into a state-of-the-art space devoted to digital-imaging. To date, thousands of pages of material have been digitized, and are now available to scholars around the world via the Internet.

Championed early on by Cline, digitization in the last decade has had a profound impact not only on how library collections are preserved, but also on how users access some of Harvard’s most valuable collections. The creation of digital surrogates allows the library to make its rarest materials available to a world-wide audience, while at the same time ensuring the fragile originals are protected and only handled when necessary. Among the myriad of digitization projects the libraries are undertaking is an unprecedented collaboration between HCL and the National Library of China to digitize all 51,889 rare Chinese volumes held at Harvard-Yenching Library.

“Digitization is a very exciting application of technology,” Cline said. “We have digitized rare maps, rare Chinese, Korean and Japanese texts, medieval manuscripts, extensive pamphlet collections, Mozart scores and contemporary photography, to name just a few.”

Cline’s legacy, however, isn’t limited to a single building. In addition to revealing new avenues for the preservation of library materials, the lessons of the Widener renovation informed later efforts in Lamont, Fine Arts, Littauer and Harvard-Yenching libraries, as well as the renovation of HCL Technical Services, located at 625 Mass. Ave. The renovations have also led to enhancements in the way patrons access the libraries and use the collections. Aligning similar services inside the libraries freed patrons to use the buildings as they saw fit – those seeking help from librarians or interested in working collaboratively were able to do so without disturbing other patrons engaged in quiet study.

Ensuring the vitality of the libraries’ physical and digital presences, however, is one of Cline’s lengthy list of accomplishments. The libraries today are more “alive” than ever, due in large part to her emphasis on finding new ways to reach out to users with services designed to support research, teaching and learning.

Under her leadership, new library units were formed to assist faculty by digitizing materials used in teaching, offering classes on research techniques for students, and working collaboratively to design assignments using library collections. Other outreach efforts are aimed at both undergraduate and graduate students, and include the Library Liaison program, which pairs librarians with academic departments, and efforts to create study spaces in response to student demand. All illustrate the critical role Cline has played in ensuring the libraries remain living buildings and centers of scholarship for both students and faculty.

“We want to continue to build on those relationships,” Cline said. “Service is going to be a major key for academic libraries in the future. We need to meet our customers where they work and study – reach out to them, and assist them in finding the collections and services they need to create scholarship.”

“Nancy has a mastery of the most intricate details (of the libraries), but also has a clear view of the entire system, not just at Harvard, but everywhere,” Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor Robert Darnton said. “She stands as one of the most respected figures in the world of knowledge. I admire the qualities that went into her extraordinary career - sheer intelligence, good judgment, accumulated experience, and above all, grace.”  

While Cline’s administration has been marked by widespread changes at the libraries and the wider Harvard community, the full scope of the changes is perhaps best summed up by Professor James Engell, Gurney Professor of English Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature.

In the 15 years since Cline took the reins of Harvard college library, he said, “there were four university presidents, three provosts, four FAS deans, two heads of the Harvard University Library, but only one Librarian of Harvard College, the one and only Nancy Cline. The course she had to chart was threatened by more icebergs than the North Atlantic shipping lanes in April 1912, but she brought the ship home stronger, faster and better able to serve its passengers and patrons than ever before.”