Back in the recesses of Widener Library, a tremendous number of brightly-bound volumes sparkle throughout the stacks of the Modern Literature section.
The works--in gaudy blue, red, orange, pink, and yellow jackets--are from the bequests of George Lyman Kittredge '82 and George Andrew Reisner '89. Both men were leading scholars in their fields: Kittredge was professor of English at Harvard and an authority on Shakespeare; Reisner was a Harvard professor of Egyptology and an eminent archaeologist.
The books they left to the College are mainly murder mysteries--thousands of them.
According to Robert H. Haynes, assistant librarian of Widener, who can spot a detective book on the shelves by the color of its cover, Kittredge donated hundreds of the books. "He had a reputation for reading at least one of those mystery stories a night," Haynes said, and he gave them to Widener as he finished them.
For the huge Reisner collection, a special plate has been printed. Inside the cover of "Murder at Midnight," is printed:
From the Bequest of George Andrew Reisner Class of 1889 Professor of Egyptology
For half a century, Reisner lived in Cairo, Egypt, scouring the Near East and working at the foot of the Great Pyramids of Giza. In Ethiopia, he excavated the graves and remains of 67 Sudanese kings and queens. At the Giza Pyramids, he found the tomb of a queen who had died around 3,000 B.C., and invaluable works of art from the Fourth Dynasty of Egypt.
When Reisner died in 1942, he left his entire library to Harvard College. The war interfered with transportation of the volumes until 1946, however, and Widener librarians waited for a comprehensive collection of works on archaeology, egyptology, and the Near East.
The library reached Harvard, and there were a few books on archaeology--"nothing unusual, pretty standard stuff," said Haynes. The wealth of the library is thousands of mystery stories, which have made Widener's collection one of the most extensive in the country.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Reisner books is the brief, but quite conclusive, opinion he indicated in each volume. Reisner graded every detective story, and on the fly-leaf of many of the volumes now in the Widener stacks, one can find a pencilled A-, B-, B, or C.
Haynes calls this collection "the most popular at Harvard, among students, and, more particularly, among faculty members. At any particular time, one or maybe two thousand of the books are out of the library."