Beyond The Stacks

Inside Harvard University Library's Depository

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Visitors are not welcome—on average, only 15 come per year, and they are there to observe the facility rather than to take out any books, according to Assistant Director of the Depository Thomas E. Schneiter. Even professors who request to visit the Depository for research purposes are denied access.

There are no librarians on the premises—only staff workers trained in the art of promoting efficiency and preservation. Outside the secured, airtight doors of the storage room, Depository staffer Steve Bertino monitors the facility through a completely computerized system.

“It really is an industrial operation,” Schneiter said. “Our product just happens to be books.”

When a student requests a book from the Depository on the Hollis Web site, the text’s barcode is placed on a list that is passed on to one of the 23 Depository staffers.

The staffer steers a forklift toward the proper aisle in the module—a set of four to six aisles—and rises up to the appropriate shelf to pull out the specified book from a cardboard tray that resembles an open shoebox. Books are stored in 50-degree temperature and 35 percent humidity—climate specifications that prolong the life of books, according to leading preservationists.

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The Harvard Depository: Beyond the Stacks

The Harvard Depository: Beyond the Stacks

Schneiter said that storing a book in the Depository is akin to placing it in a time machine: the book will endure 250 years with no deterioration.

“As far as books are concerned, it’s still 1995,” Schneiter said as he stood inside a particular module.

After books are collected and placed on a tray, they are brought to the main room to be scanned, grouped with other books heading for the campus, and loaded into one of the three delivery vans.

If a student requests a book from the Depository before 6:45 a.m., the book will be waiting for the student to claim that same afternoon—and the individual may have done as little as making a few clicks.

REFORMING THE DEPOSITORY

The Depository has represented a bittersweet solution for the constraints facing the Harvard library system.

The facility, which serves as a model for over 80 similar projects around the world, ensures an efficient, fail-proof way to store and distribute books. Only two Depository books have been misplaced in the history of the facility, according to Schneiter.

The Depository was designed as a low-use facility that would house the University’s esoteric and unused holdings—dubbed “dormant.”

But by the 1990s, Widener Library reached its capacity limit, forcing the University library system to send out resources of higher circulation than usual to the Depository. The facility now welcomes 500,000 new books every year, and as many as 1,600 are circulated out a day.

Indeed, the Depository has bloomed into a structure that outsizes its original model, and now the University is working to reconcile the facility’s purpose with Harvard’s recent structural revamping of the library system.

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