Behind the Lines:

Talking to the Harvard Operators

There is only one office at Harvard where the phones never ring. It's not easy to find. Follow a narrow alleyway off Mt. Auburn St.--between Tech Hifi and Claverly Hall-and turn right, towards a tiny, ivy-covered, square brick building. Walk up a few steps and in through the front door, and there it is: a small room with low ceilings, fluorescent lights, wall-to-wall carpeting, a few plants, and eight or nine desks.

But inside this quiet, nondescript office---seemingly cut off from the rest of the world-is the nerve-center of the entire University, from accounting to zoology, from Daniel Aaron to Rita Zusman. And, ironically, no staff spends more time on the phone then the dozen women who work in this office: Harvard's information operators.

On an average weekday, about 4000 people dial 495-1000 (the University's general number), 495-5000 (student information), 495-6000 (Business School information), 495-7000 (the Harvard and Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory), and 495-8000 (Radcliffe information), all of which connect to the operators' office. Each operator sits in front of a long bank of flashing lights and colored buttons, wearing a clip-on earphone and a near-invisible, transparent, cable mouthpiece that keeps her hands free. When a call comes in, the console emits a faint beep and the operator answers it with the press of a button.

All this technology gives the office an unsettling, almost surreal quality; the first-time visitor sees eight people with their hands at their sides, smiling and talking to the wall in front of them. But gradually, the scene becomes familiar: soon it becomes possible to detect the ultra-polite, unemotional tone of voice that is the trademark of only one profession, and finally, one makes out a phrase here and there and recognizes the cant of Harvard operators:

"Hello Harvard... thank you for waiting, I'll connect you... what's the first name, please... spell the name, sir...ah-four nine fah-eevc, seven eight oh one... that's V as in Victor... would that be off-campus or on... surely, I'll ring for you... I'm sorry, only three numbers at a time... surely, is that undergraduate, staff, or faculty..."


But behind this cheerful facade lurks a series of woes and frustrations that daily plague the Harvard operators. The first is what one student calls "the read-War-and-Peace-and-play-a-few-games-of-Monopoly-while-you-wait syndrome." During the office's peak hours, it is not uncommon for the operators to receive more calls then they can handle at once, in which case they simply answer the calls in order. The worst crunch comes between noon and two in the afternoon, when the operators take their lunch hours, and on weekends, when the staff is reduced from eight to three. (On football Saturdays, a fourth operator is brought in.) As it happens, these are the very times that most callers have occasion to get to the phone.

In other words, during the periods when the operators are busiest calls can take a long, long time to be answered--19 or 20 rings is not unheard of. Often, the result is that the operators are treated to a good measure of Harvard's finest invective.

"You're killing yourself, working a mile a minute," says one operator who has worked the Harvard switchboards for more than 35 years, "and some kid comes on and says 'Where were you, operator, knitting?' You don't say anything to them, of course, but you just feel like tearing your hair out."

Then there are the callers who ask the operators everything but a Harvard phone number. "People just say, 'Oh, call Harvard, they'll tell you anything you want to know,'" says one operator. "And we do. We get long-distance calls on Saturdays asking us the football scores. We can tell them, too-we keep our little radio tuned to WHRB."

"I've had a call from someone in California who wanted to know what city Yale is in," remembers another. "And if anything goes on in Cambridge, we're expected to know it."

"One night, I got a call from someone who wanted to know if I knew anything about the planet Saturn," recalls Sara Chalfen, one of a handful of "casuals"-men and women who work part time to augment the regular staff of 12 operators. "He wanted to know the names of the stars that circle around Saturn. I tried to find him someone at the Smithsonian who would know-I don't know how successful I was."

Finally, there are what operator Kathy Ladue calls "the little-red-schoolhouse calls." "There are some calls I can't believe," she says. "Some grandmother will call and want to know if Johnny's in class. I'll tell her I'm sure I don't know. and she'll say, 'Well, when you see Johnny, will you tell him...."

She interrupts herself to answer a call. Someone wants to know the number for the Divinity School. "What particular department are you looking for?" she asks. He's not sure; he's trying to find a good babysitter and he thought the Divinity School would be "a good group to approach." Kathy suggests Harvard Student Agencies and the Student Employment Office, reads out both numbers, and the caller hangs up.

"More little-red-schoolhouse calls," she continues. "The other day, someone called and wanted to talk to 'Yvonne, in the dorm.' I told him I'd need more information and he just said, 'Well she's in the dorm.' Or once I had a call asking for 'the library.' 'Sir, there are over a hundred libraries at Harvard,' I told him."

Another call comes in, for Hemenway Gym. "That's an easy one," she says right away: "4-9-5, quadruple-2" She smiles. "Blodgett Pool's an easy one too: 1-7-8-9-it's just a one and then seven-eight-nine. And if you can remember that, you can remember the International Office: 2-7-8-9. You have to be careful not to confuse the International Office with the Center for International Affairs, and you have to be careful not to confuse the CFIA with the Center for Science and International Affairs. If someone asks for CSIA, it often sounds like CFIA, and you have to look out because the woman at CFIA gets all huffy if she gets CSIA calls. And the other day, I had a call for 'ock-sockle,' and I just said 'What?' It turned out it was for the O C S-O C L."

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