Checking Out Harvard's Neglected House Libraries

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Housing Day is nigh, and the last thing most freshmen are thinking about when making their lottery wish list is House libraries. Most have probably never been inside one. The news that each House even has a library may come as a surprise. The library may be a stop on a Thursday evening House tour for new students, and it will probably strike some people as a good workspace. A few will even stop to look at the impressive stacks of books crammed from wall to wall. Those students may find it even more surprising that almost no one ever actually uses those books.

It’s been this way for over a decade, at least. In a 2000 Crimson editorial titled “What are House Libraries For?”, Crimson news and editorial editor Adam I. Arenson ’01 wrote bluntly, “No one goes to the House library for books.” Even then, the libraries were used primarily as study spaces. In those days, they at least had librarians to tend to them; now, after the 2009 budget cuts, most are staffed minimally, if at all. There is no way to check a book out of my House library, and there is no way to keep track of where the books are. One would be worried about book thieves, but even they seem to have lost interest. Most of the books sit unconsulted, undisturbed, and unnoticed—classy furniture for what have become glorified reading rooms.

Eliot Library stands frozen in time. There is a typewritten card catalog, but it’s hardly up to date. Kirkland is the only House library to have even a partial record on HOLLIS. The books are not recent. There are standard classics in most fields, but many of the works are outdated, as evidenced by the number of works on the USSR—good luck to anyone looking for a Zadie Smith novel, much less a book on Islamic fundamentalism.

And yet Harvard undergrads react sharply whenever anyone restricts access to these largely unused books. When the Quad Library was dismantled in 2009, there was much grumbling about “taking our books away.” When Dunster, in order to catalogue its collection, literally barred access to its books from October 2009 to September 2010, at least a few upset students argued that it violated the spirit of a university. The books in the libraries have tremendous symbolic value, even if their functional worth is, at the moment, limited.

So what is the future for the holdings of the House libraries? The Spring 2009 report on House renewal recognizes the centrality of the libraries as workspaces, recommending that they be outfitted with more computers and better lighting—and, in the case of the Georgian houses, that they keep the “old Harvard” look. The report found that 59% of students work in House libraries. But only 5% said they use those same libraries’ books, and with good reason. There is no central database, and no clear floor plan. Many of the books have been placed out of order over the years. The library stacks are not quite unusable, but they are technologically obsolete in the eyes of students whose research experience has trained them to be good with keyword searches and online databases rather than card catalogs and shelf-hopping. The House renewal report made no recommendations regarding what should be done with the stacks themselves.

But when renewal begins, this issue will need to be addressed. Can the libraries be integrated into HOLLIS? Should access continue to be restricted to House members? Should the holdings be kept current across all fields, or should they consist of old classics? What will happen to all the once-fashionable books that few people read anymore—the George Meredith novels and H.L. Mencken essays? Renovators will need to do something with the thousands of volumes. What will be their future?

One of the goals of the Harvard University Library under both director Robert C. Darnton ’60 and new executive director Helen Shenton has been the development of a coordinated management structure across the University’s 79 libraries. At the moment, that count does not seem to include the House libraries, which are listed under neither the College Library system nor their own headings. One of the things that could be hoped for is better integration into the College and University Library systems, which could, by giving the Houses the resources needed to document and track their holdings, help improve the accessibility and use of House library resources. The books are there to be used, and hopefully by more than just 5% of any given House. On future Housing Days, preferably students will be able to look forward not just to House formals and Stein Clubs, but also to being able to use their nearby House libraries instead of trekking up to Lamont.

—Columnist Spencer B.L. Lenfield can be reached at lenfield@college.harvard.edu.

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