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Lamenting Over Lamont

By John D. Staines

"WHAT do you mean I can only take this book out for two weeks?!" A rabid, stressed graduate student says as he reaches across the circulation desk and grabs me by my shirt collar. He stares at me with blood-shot eyes and yells, "I need it for my dissertation!"

It's just another night at an undergraduate library.

Lamont Library (like its Quad counterpart, Hilles) is officially a home for undergrads who might otherwise get lost in Widener, requiring the University to send out an expensive and embarrassing search party. Lamont is supposed to be a kinder, gentler library in which you can ask the reference librarian where they keep Mad magazine and not feel like a moron.

Even first-year students know that Lamont is the place to go during reading period--they can meet all the people they didn't get to meet during Orientation Week or, maybe, if they are lucky, find a copy of the Moral Reasoning 22 Sourcebook on reserve.

If they are looking for real books, however, they might have to compete with the grad students and faculty who don't seem to grasp the concept of an undergraduate library.

ALTHOUGH practically all of Lamont's books are duplicate copies of those in Widener, non-undergrads generally perceive Lamont as just an extension of Widener that actually has enough light by which to read the books they find. They invade this undergrad refuge like poachers in an African game preserve. They expect the special privileges they get at Widener, and recognizing their overwhelming academic importance, the University often obliges.

Officers of the University, the nobility of Harvard, get all of the privileges of an advantaged class. French nobles avoided taxes. English nobles collected taxes. The American Congress does both. And Officers of Harvard University receive no overdue fines.

This would be a justifiable perk if Officers did not include just about anybody in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) with some sort of academic job. The typical grad student need only become a teaching fellow, proctor, advisor or tutor, and he or she will instantly be knighted as an Officer of the University.

While an undergrad or untitled grad student complains to the workers at the circulation desk about Lamont raising its overdue fines by 150 percent this year, an Officer can hold books for months without accumulating any fines.

One night when I was working at Lamont's circulation desk, a middle-aged man returned eleven books that were three months overdue. I took his books and smiled sadistically, thinking about how high his fine would be.

Then I saw his crimson I.D. card labelled "OFFICER." I was fuming. Maybe someone I knew needed one of those books for some admittedly inconsequential undergraduate assignment like, say, a senior thesis. As I glared at him, the man hastily explained that he had come by many times before, but Lamont was always closed.

At first, I thought he was insulting my intelligence, but then I remembered that Lamont is rarely open. One might assume that at a world-renowned research university, the undergraduate library would remain open twenty-four hours a day. But Lamont closes at I a.m. on most school nights, midnight on Thursdays, 10 p.m. on Fridays, and 5 p.m. on Saturdays. And still--with these stingy hours--Lamont is open longer than any other library on campus.

WITH the limited schedule, it isn't fair that undergraduates have to spend most of their extra time at Lamont trying to check out books. As grad students accustomed to the luxuries of Widener slowly learn, FAS has not yet deemed undergrads worthy of high technology (HOLLIS notwithstanding).

At the circulation desk, grad students and first-year undergrads ask puzzledly, "You need a five digit circulation number, a two-hundred and fifty-three digit call number, and the name of the book and its author?"

Of course, that's only the first part of the famous Lamont book-charge questionnaire, which is rumored to ask students for their I.D. numbers, blood types and the number of times they have had sex in the Widener stacks.

Grad students checking out twenty-two books on Elizabethan mating rituals are usually the ones who put the wrong numbers in the wrong places, and yell at the desk staff when they have to redo them all.

Observant Lamont patrons often notice that many books have a strip on the cover for bar codes and expect to use them instead of filling out a card. Unfortunately, very few staff members at Lamont have light pens in their index fingers. FAS started to bar-code some Lamont books several years ago, but at the last moment decided to postpone installing the computers and putting the system on-line.

Apparently, the University, strapped for ready cash as it always is, decided that its main undergraduate library was not important enough to warrant the funds that could be better spent installing large rocks in front of the Science Center. Now the library will have to wait at least another two years before the computers arrive. Perhaps Lamont could better serve undergrads if FAS no longer considered it an undergraduate library.

Besides Lamont's circulation idiosyncrasies, it is always stuffy, noisy and over-crowded with students standing in line to get the one reserve book you need most. Nevertheless, it is ours. And after living in the dorms for a while, it eventually feels a little like home. After all, Lamont is just about the closest undergrads at Harvard get to having a campus-wide student center.

Without a doubt, we will always have to share our library with some ungrateful guests. And if Harvard's noble officers continue to feel the need to play on our turf, they should at least play by the home rules. And pay by them too. With all of the overdue library fines that usually go unpaid, Lamont could probably afford some light pens.

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