Checking You Out
Library Checkers See the Weird Side of Harvard Studies
A law student digs through his backpack in the front of Lamont Library. He's looking for ID. Any ID.
"I just wanted to read the newspaper," he says, bewildered. But at Lamont, you need proper ID. That's the rule, says Horace Goodridge, a book checker. He suggests that the law student try Widener, where ID isn't necessary. The law student leaves.
"See how you handle these cases?" Goodridge chuckles.
"Life as a guard is very interesting," Goodridge says. "Each undergraduate that comes to Harvard has his own rules and regulations. We have to narrow it down to just 'Harvard rule'... if you can break that down, you've got it made."
More specifically, the role of Harvard's library book checkers is to insure that all Harvard College library books have been properly checked out, according to David W. Muir '67, supervisor of security guards in Harvard College libraries.
In Harvard library-speak, no one ever "steals" a book.
"We don't use that language," Goodridge says. "We find books that are not properly checked out, and we refer them to the desk."
"We never accuse anyone, ever, nor do we even intimate, that someone is making off with a book deliberately," agrees John W. Reilly, evening security coordinator at Widener. "We just say you 'forget.'"
And when it comes to "forgotten" books, book checkers hear every excuse imaginable.
"You never heard such lame excuses," Goodridge sighs. He recalls one student walking out with a book that was not properly checked out. The student said he didn't want the book anyway. "Reason that one out," Goodridge says.
At Lamont, excuses for forgotten IDs had better be good, says Nick Prim. "I tell them, 'Give me an original reason. I want something creative.'"
The student then comes up with "I was at some party and I got so jammed I don't know where I left it." Or, "I left it at my mother's house during vacation. And that's in Thames, England," Prim laughs, shaking his head.
Bag checking is another matter altogether. Byron S. Harvey has seen it all.
"There's a lot of food in the bags. An awful lot of fruit, an awful lot of lunches," he says as he inspects a woman's bag at Widener.
"A good many are gym bags," Harvey adds. "There's a lot of laughing about inspecting the gym bags."
"I don't know that I've ever seen anything really weird," Harvey says. However, he says, "A great many people carry rolls of toilet paper. You know why, but you don't know what sets them off," he says. "An awful lot of toilet paper," he repeats.
Not every item in the bags is as harmless as a lunch sack--or as soft as the Charmin that Harvey sees so often. "Those clipboards, they're dangerous," Goodridge says, warily eying the sharp edge of a metal clip.
And Muir says he has even been frightened by the contents of a bag. When he was a book checker, he says, he found a skull.
"It kind of freaked me out. The student explained he was from the Medical School," he says.
Book checkers themselves "come in all flavors and intensities," Prim says. The guards hail from a variety of backgrounds: editors, psychologists, Ph.D's, writers and painters have all staffed the entrances of Harvard's libraries, according to Muir.
Book-checkers greet students in styles ranging from friendly smiles and small talk to barely-audible grunts.
"Every guard has his or her own personality, and you don't want to go against the grain of that personality," Muir says.
"We have had a few guards over the years who have really developed a rapport with kids. Horace has a way with kids," says Muir.
Goodridge, Muir says, "manages to strike the right kind of balance between friendliness, and the kind of distance a book checker needs to have," he explains.
Goodridge says that he does get to know students, but they "expect you to know 6500 faces. It's interesting, the level of youthful thinking. Very refreshing," he chuckles.
Goodridge receives letters from all over the world, he says. Alumni sometimes make a special trip to Lamont to visit him, he says.
Prim, too, says he has a friendly approach to the job. "You have to be polite because you're invading people's privacy," he says.
When he inspects their bags, he says, "You can disarm them by having a lot of comments. Outrageous ones like, 'Very organized...' or 'Mother would be shocked!'"
"You won't be slurping any suds this afternoon?" he asks a student whose arms are filled with books. The student shakes his head sadly.
A few minutes later a woman approaches his desk, searching for ID among a multitude of credit cards. "We take Visa, Mastercard..." Prim tells her.
For Prim, book checking can be categorized into scenarios. For example, he says, "Seven people will be in line. The first five automatically take one or two books out and have them ready. The sixth keeps their bag closed until they get up here. And then they just look at you."
Prim's commentary is interrupted by a an ID-less student claiming to be a visiting prefrosh. His host vouchs for the high school senior, laining that he wants to bring him to a section to show him what Harvard is like.
"He can just walk out and see Harvard Yard if he wants to see what Harvard is like," Prim says. "Go over to the Hong Kong," he suggests. But he eventually lets the Harvard student sign in his guest.
At 1 p.m., Lamont's third floor erupts into chaos. Undergraduates rush in and out of the lobby. A long line develops as students prepare to show Prim their bags.
But something's wrong; suddenly the line isn't moving. Prim spots the problem right away: He's looking at that sixth person, the one who's stopped the flow of traffic as he struggles to unzip a weighty backpack.
"Here you go," Prim murmurs.