Faculty Profile

Sleuths in the Stacks

"I was always well-known for finding books; I would pray and the Lord would answer my prayers and I would have the book," says John Shea, superintendent of the stacks in Widener. He is the one person responsible for finding any missing book in Widener's three and one-half million volume collection. "A Yale professor once told me that their library was good, very good, but it will never be tops because it doesn't have a John Shea," he relates.

But John Shea--the man who nabbed the library's biggest book thief--doesn't depend on prayer to uncover missing or stolen books. As a matter of fact, he relies mainly on his 46 years of experience working in University libraries. He started in the old Gore Library as a coat checker, moved into the newly-built Widener as a book checker, became shortly thereafter Superintendent of the stacks in Widener, and in 1948 was appointed an officer of the University with the title of "The Superintendent of the Stack and the Harry Elkins Memorial Building of the Harvard College Library." "My background really started long before because my mother worked with the University for 30 or 40 years as a biddy. Why, she did professor C. T. Copeland's laundry for years," he proudly remarks.

This long association with Harvard helps him find books in two ways. First, he can often find misplaced volumes immediately because those certain books are consistently stacked wrongly by library help. But for the majority, he employs a step-by-step deductive process.

After receiving a slip of paper bearing the urgent "N.O.S." (Not on Shelf) signal, Shea immediately hurries to the shelf where the book is supposed to be, and many times he finds it misplaced or pushed behind other volumes. If the book is not there, he goes to the catalogue file and learns if the would-be borrower has copied the correct call number. This solves the majority of the cases.

If these two methods do not work, the real sleuthing begins. He hunts down all places within the library where the book could have disappeared, such as the book bindery. Other times he juggles the original call number, possibly incorrect, and looks for the book at different shelves. Still other books will be found in the private stalls within the stacks. Instead of trying to examine all 300 cubicles, he acquaints himself with the research projects certain students are engaged in, and, using this knowledge as a lead, investigates these stalls. Out of 60 missing books a day, Shea manages to recover 45.


"We have few people who try to gyp books from the library," Shea notes. "I remember, however, one year in 1928 when we had 2500 books stolen. A bookstore clerk came running into my office waving a tattered and beaten old book. He said some guy tried to sell it. I looked it up in the inventory and sure enough it had been stolen. I told the director, who informed the police, but the director said to me: 'John, I want you to work on this case yourself too.'"

Shea and the University Police worked on the case several weeks, and for a time it appeared that John Shea had failed on his biggest case. But one day he noticed a graduate student walking out of the library with a bulging briefcase. Shea stopped the student, examined the briefcase, and found it stuffed with unchecked books. The University police took the culprit into custody.

"The director told me to go to this student's home in Dedham and see if he had any more," Shea recalls. "I found that he had 1800 books, most of them stuffed into dirty, old barrels and wastebaskets. Most of them were so mutilated that they were valueless. The student was absolutely crazy and got two and a half years at hard labor."

"What this guy did," Shea states," would be to go to students studying in Widener and ask them what course they were taking. He would then borrow all the books for that course in the library. Then no one could get any to study. After this incident, I had plates put in all books that were returned, saying 'The man who stole this book from the library is now serving a sentence of two and a half years at hard labor."