(Photography by Jason Smith)

Dedicated to learning

As Harper Library turns 100, Arley D. Cathey, PhB’50, helps assure the future of the historic space.

The Harper Memorial Library reading room transformed itself for a few hours June 1 from a quiet study space into the site of a celebration. More than 100 alumni, faculty, and staff members gathered for a reception honoring the library’s centennial and marking the reading room’s rededication as the Arley D. Cathey Learning Center.

Arley D. Cathey, PhB’50, has pledged approximately $17 million to recognize his father of the same name. His commitment assures that the library, first dedicated in 1912 in William Rainey Harper’s honor, will continue to serve students in the 21st century. “The rededication means more attention will be focused on using the space for students today,” said Joe Brennan, AB’77, who attended the reception during his 35th College reunion. “For the University of Chicago, in the long scale, having space for students is incredibly important. This space is especially valuable, a beautiful, open space, an inspiring space.”

Before the new residence hall south of the Midway opened in 2009—where a house and the dining complex also will bear the Cathey name—leaders of the College wanted to make Harper more appealing to students, who had gravitated to other study spaces. In 2009 a renovated reading room was unveiled with an open design, along with group study space in adjacent Stuart Hall and a student-run café.

The University’s original circulating library, Harper became the College’s administrative and teaching center following the Regenstein’s 1971 opening. The small book collection that remained in the Harper reading room, said dean of the College John W. Boyer, AM’69, PhD’75, “led to the interposition of ugly stack-like components throughout the floor plan that interrupted the visual sight lines of this great hall.” The renovation removed those interruptions, replacing them with long reading tables suited to the architectural grandeur of what Boyer called “the single most impressive room on campus.”

The changes have attracted student traffic back to the location, which has seating for 280. “It’s such a University of Chicago space in terms of the feel, the architecture, and the atmosphere,” fourth-year Elizabeth Lebling said. “In the Reg everything is separated. In Harper you can look up and around, and everybody’s working and focused, and it has a very academic feel to it.”

Experiencing that atmosphere as an undergraduate thrilled Cathey, whose student career was interrupted by World War II. “I was enjoying myself so much that I was in danger of being a professional student,” he said. After graduating, Cathey built a butane gas business in his home state of Arkansas, but, as Boyer noted during his remarks, he never lost his passion for reading and discussing the classics. “I think knowledge is the most important thing,” Cathey said.

The Arley D. Cathey Learning Center includes both the Harper and Stuart reading rooms and the café, almost 25,000 square feet that will undergo continued improvements—including the lighting, heating and air conditioning, and furnishings—to “take it from good to great,” said Michael R. Jones,  AM’83, PhD’88, AM’12, associate dean for programs and development in the College. Those upgrades will allow the space to remain an active part of the University’s intellectual life and a living connection to its founding ideals.

In the Harper reading room, Boyer said, “one can feel the strength and optimism of the University, the capaciousness of the founders’ vision, and their confidence that, as Ernest D. Burton himself once put it, they were building for a long future.”