Innovation Entering the Library

Harvard University Library secures the exits

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J-Term can make quite a bit of difference. Harvard’s campus probably looks just as snowy, icy, and dreary as it did in December. Yet inside of some of the most important buildings in and around Harvard Yard, changes have been implemented that will change students’ lives on a daily basis. What do I mean? What am I talking about? Just some programs going by the names of “Secure Exit” and “Harvard Direct.

To appreciate the former, simply walk up the Widener steps and enter the library. Warm up from the cold, take a bit of a walk around, perhaps a quick trip to your study carrel, to catch up with your books (your thesis has missed you a helluva lot more than you missed it), a peek at the Gutenberg Bible (you’ll make a lot of tourists jealous), and then head to the door. At this point all should seem the same. You’ll wonder what revolutionary new innovation I’ve been talking about. But as you prepare your bag to be searched as you exit the library, you’ll find it. Secure Exit. A barcode scanner. Now all the library books in your bag will be scanned as you exit. Surely a step up from the visual inspection of the due date stamped on the tag glued to the back of the book.

This being Harvard, ancient and older than the United States themselves, with Gutenberg Bibles and Bay Psalm Books displayed like coffee table Taschens, changes sometimes come slowly. The technology used at the circulation desk (and at the supermarket, the gas station, the bookstore, etc.) has finally reached the guards’ desks at Widener and at Lamont.

Secure Exit is currently a pilot project, so if it fails to meet its goal of reducing the wait times and shrinking the lines to leave the library at peak hours, it might not last. Clearly, Secure Exit is a SECUR-ity program designed to help eliminate book theft, which has been and continues to be a problem at Harvard as it is a problem at every library. Recent examples include thefts of rare books from libraries in Naples, Italy, and in Stockholm, Sweden; both of these cases involved employee thefts, which a program like Secure Exit might deter but couldn’t totally prevent.

I applaud the library for taking steps to alleviate the massive delays experienced at closing time in Widener and virtually every hour, on the hour, during class sessions in Lamont. I once had a section that met in a Lamont Library classroom. All 18 of us leaving at once with all of our textbooks and course packs jammed the line; it was often better to go sit and read for ten minutes than to attempt a “speedy” exit.

Secure Exit also makes a provision that Lamont have two security exit lanes, which hopefully will speed exits for students, keeping them on time for classes. Even if the Secure Exit procedure slows down each individual inspection, conducting multiple inspections at a time should more than compensate. Beyond the costs in time, the costs of replacing books stolen should also be factored in. Some items cannot be replaced if they are out of print; facsimile copies made of out-of-print books can often be difficult to read; Google’s scans, too, can be illegible.

However, the best solution to the problem might be not having to enter the library in the first place. This is where Harvard Direct comes into play. Harvard Direct allows library users to request delivery of books from the stacks of Widener, Countway Medical Library, or the Harvard Law School Library to any other library.  In theory, nobody would ever have to venture into the stacks for their own books. By a simple click of the mouse, the HOLLIS catalogue opens up the contents of Widener and Countway and the Law Library to all users.

Where I work—Cabot Science Library—I help students and faculty find books on many topics, including medicine. Oftentimes books that Cabot has are needed by students in the Longwood Medical Area (HMS, HSPH, HSDM), and books that undergraduates need are housed in Boston, across the Charles River at Countway. Needless to say, this distance has been a source of frustration for students and an impediment to learning and research across the biological and medical sciences. Now, Harvard Direct will allow these students, and others, to save time and energy for reading, instead of the long M2 Shuttle commute across from Cambridge to Boston.

It is momentous whenever the Harvard University Library makes a change, and unusual to have two major upgrades implemented side by side. I think we as a university community should celebrate the initiatives and hope for their success, while being mindful of potential drawbacks such as increasing delays in book delivery, and exit queues as long as Netflix queues.

Michael T. Feehly ’14 is a joint history and Scandinavian studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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