In Memoriam: Joan Nordell (1927–2021)

October 13, 2021

A woman sits on the side of a desk next to stacks of books and papers.
Joan Nordell, ca. 1950s (W361974_1). Schlesinger Library, Harvard Radcliffe Institute. Used with permission.

The staff of Houghton Library was saddened to learn that Joan Nordell of Concord, formerly of Cambridge, passed away on Saturday, October 2, 2021. With Joan’s death, both Houghton Library and Harvard Library have lost one of their most loyal supporters.

An alumna of Radcliffe College, Joan received an AB in 1949 and graduated from its Management Training Program in 1950, the same year she became Radcliffe’s Director of Publicity. Joan joined Harvard Library to provide administrative support during the construction of Pusey Library in the early 1970s, beginning an association that would last for the next 25 years. In her role as Assistant to the Director for External Affairs in the Harvard University Library, Joan revitalized the Friends of the Harvard College Library, enlarging its membership, maintaining its calendar, and hosting memorable library events on its behalf. Her work with donors, in Cambridge and elsewhere, led to the creation of numerous named book endowments in use today throughout the library. With uncommon grace and tact, Joan deftly managed major capital campaigns to benefit Houghton Library as it celebrated its 40th (1982) and 50th (1992) anniversaries; for the latter, she was named External Affairs Officer for Houghton Library.

In 1981 Joan and her husband, H. Roderick Nordell (1925–2017), an executive editor and longtime jazz and theater critic for the Christian Science Monitor, endowed the Nordell Family Book Fund for use at the Harvard Fine Arts Library. In her honor, library benefactor Melvin R. Seiden, Harvard Class of 1952, established the Joan and Roderick Nordell Fund (1990) to support new acquisitions in the Harvard Theatre Collection. Her devoted friends endowed the Joan Nordell Fellowship Fund (1991) to provide financial support to scholars in all disciplines conducting research at Houghton. To date, the library has hosted 47 Nordell fellows, many of whom Joan greeted warmly in person to learn more about their projects.

After her retirement in 1993, Joan remained a vital presence in the life of the library. In 1996 she curated “The New Storytellers,” a landmark exhibition of one-of-a-kind artists’ books held in Boston-area libraries and museums. In 2006, she published an article in Harvard Library Bulletin that traced her effort to locate the ten privately printed copies of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1865 translation of Dante’s Inferno. Joan and Rod regularly attended library-sponsored lectures, concerts, and exhibition openings, and looked forward to seeing old friends and—as importantly—making new ones. For many of us, it will be difficult to imagine a Harvard Library event without seeing Joan seated in the front row.