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Bigger Isn't Better

By Matthew M. Hoffman

THE COLOSSAL, overwhelming, mammoth size of Harvard's library system is a well-documented fact. Tour guides comment on it every day. Eleven million volumes overall. Five miles of bookshelves in Widener alone. In other words, big.

What the tour guides don't like to mention, however, is just how fundamentally strange the country's oldest library system happens to be. Indeed, the just-plain-weirdness of the University library is as impressive, in a way, as its immense size.

This weirdness does not have to be explained to anyone who has ever stood and listened to the "drip-drip-drip" that rains eternally down in the passageway between Widener and Gov. Docs. Where does all that water come from? And where is it going? Is any of it getting on the books?

It's questions like these that make a trip to Widener an experience to be cherished. Most of the library's oddities have to be seen to be believed. But a few merit special attention. Herewith a few examples:

POINT 1. HOLLIS terminals. Why are there none inside the stacks? The current setup presumes that all library users can develop a detailed and comprehensive research plan while sitting in the comparative safety of the reference room.

I am sure that there are people at this University organized enough to work out such a plan. I am not one of them. I am not sure I have ever even met one of them. I think of new things I want to look for when I am wedged between two of the movable stacks on the third level of Pusey--P3, as the library cognoscenti know it. Then I have to trek all the way back to Widener circulation to find a HOLLIS machine.

A similar problem exists with the library's ever-elusive Xerox machines, all of which are exactly 15 minutes away from everything that one might conceivably want to photocopy. It might make some sense to put Xerox machines over by the noncirculating periodicals and journals in the Widener stacks.

POINT 2. Change. Not the earth-shaking kind advocated by our crusading campus revolutionaries, but the loose kind which is almost nowhere to be found in the Widener-Pusey-Lamont system. Where on earth is one supposed to get it? Sure, there are change machines over by the Xerox machines. But they only take $1 bills.

Suppose--hypothetically, of course--that you are trying to photocopy a periodical in Lamont, but that the only cash you have is a $5 dollar bill. If I were ever in such a situation, it might occur to me to try to get change from the folks over in Gov Docs, right down the stairs. Just to see what would happen, I stopped by Gov Docs the other day to see if they could break a five.

I was told that I had to go to the photo department in Widener--the only place in the entire complex authorized to make change. Unfortunately, the passage from Gov Docs to Widener goes only one way--the wrong way.

It's not so bad, I was told. "You have to go up, go down, go back and go across. Or just go outside."

Nothing to it. I bet you guys get this question a lot.

"At least four times a day--and that's just the nine-to-five shift. Better make it six times a day. During peak hours it's worse."

Adding to the problem, of course, is that the three libraries have different hours. Widener is open until 9:45 on weeknights. Lamont is open until one. Even assuming that a physical route of access to the photo desk existed, it would only be possible to use it during certain hours of the day.

One solution to this problem would be to install a system of magnetic cards similar to that used at the Office of Information Technology and the city's Registry of Deeds. But I'm not holding my breath.

POINT 3. Stack space. I have always been skeptical of the argument that Widener does not have enough space to house its books, simply because every time I go there I see rows and rows of empty shelves.

On the other hand, I recognize that keeping three million volumes in their proper places is as tricky as it sounds. And my sources in the library tell me that the space shortage--at least in certain areas of Widener--is getting out of hand.

"There are places in Widener where you can no longer shelve," one librarian told me recently. "We're going to have to put some stuff on the floor."

Nonetheless, I strongly suspect that Widener does not suffer so much from a space problem as from an allocation of space problem. Anyone who has ever threaded the tortuous subterranean path from Widener to Pusey knows that the library system contains many empty corridors which could conceivably house books.

New space, of course, gets filled up as fast as you can find it. I doubt that there is any way to solve the space problem permanently--short of the construction of a major new library. But until that day arrives, I have a plan.

Anyone who has spent more than a week here knows that Harvard operates on the RHIP principle--here, as in any large organization, Rank Hath Its Privileges. One consequence of this policy is that senior faculty members are eligible to receive "studies"--Harvardspeak for small offices--in Widener and Pusey.

According to my survey of the library's 1991 index and telephone directory--which I understand is slightly out of date--80 of the 115 studies in Widener and Pusey are occupied by faculty members who have offices elsewhere. At least 18 of those people have two or more offices elsewhere. Twelve of the 115 are emeritus professors.

Getting a study in Widener is a definite perk. Rumor has it that there is an 18-month waiting list. But significant numbers of people--graduates, junior faculty and so on--do manage to conduct significant research without recourse to a study.

Hence I have a modest proposal to end--at least for the time being--the space shortage: convert the studies into shelf space. When the University finds a more long-term solution--such as an expansion of Pusey or the construction of a new library, it can build a lot of nice new faculty offices as part of the plan. In the meantime, no one will have to be turned out in the street. It's a crazy idea, but it just might work.

Library administrators are skeptical of my plan. "It would not help one little bit," Richard De Gennaro, the Larsen Librarian of Harvard College, told me recently. De Gennaro has quite sensibly argued that the only solution is to keep moving books into the off-campus depository.

But even if it wouldn't help the space shortage, the Hoffman plan might boost morale on campus. Everyone would share equally in the weirdness that is Widener. I for one would find it much easier to cope with the libraries if I knew they made the most espected professors at the University as miserable as they make me.

After all, isn't that what libraries are for?

Harvard's library system makes no sense. It's time for some change.

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