Students Navigate the Sea of Libraries

Some Harvard students make it to graduation without ever setting foot in the cavernous Widener Library, but third-grader Harry J.K. Stevens has already been there three times.

yesterday he helped his father, Professor of Biology Peter F. Stevens, find Traces on the Rhodian Shore in the stacks.

"I'm good at looking at things in alphabetical order," Harry says as he leaves the library.

In fact, eight-year-old Harry is a big fan of books. His favorite is Bill Wallace's Danger on Panther Peak, which was originally titled Shadow of the Snow.

And Harry says he's not at all scared of the dark and musty Widener stacks.


But many Harvard students interviewed yesterday say they are frightened by the library's 10-floor labyrinth.

"As well they should be," adds David Cort '78, who staffs the information desk on the second floor of Widener.

"It's not really a user-friendly or comfortable library," he says.

"As an undergraduate, I was more interested in sleeping [than studying or doing research]," Cort says. "There's no good place to sleep in Widener."

A Dunster sophomore, who says he uses the library as an excuse to avoid ex-girl-friends and his mother, says he prefers Lamont for sleeping and studying.

The Dunsterite says he spends up to six hours in Lamont on a Saturday--of course, that includes at least an hour of nap time.

"If you spend six hours in the library, and spend three of them asleep, that way you feel you're being studious," the biochemical sciences concentrator says.

"It's the thought that counts, really," he says.

The Dunster resident says his whole first year entryway spent most of their time in Lamont.

"Last year was insane. We came here all the time," he says. "It was kind of dorky."

In fact, the entryway adopted the carpeted, fifth-floor Farnsworth Room as their second home.

"Before people started to discover [the room], we'd lay down on the floor four or five at a time, all in a row [and sleep]," he says.

Widener Library is named after Harry Elkins Widener, who died aboard the Titanic in 1912.

His mother then donated money to the college to build a library in his honor, with three stipulations: that no stone, brick or mortar in the structure be changed, that every Harvard undergraduate pass a swim test and that a memorial room be built and supplied with fresh roses every day.

The only stipulation not upheld was the swimming requirement, dropped in the late 1970s because it was deemed discriminatory against physically disabled students.

Promises Kept

Some traditions are semi-eternal, however.

Yesterday, close to a dozen fresh, red carnations--which replaced the roses when they became too expensive--sat atop Harry Widener's desk in the memorial room.

And when it became necessary to connect Widener to the Houghton-Pusey-Lamont complex, the University kept its promise to Mrs. Widener and took out a window--moving neither brick nor stone nor mortar--to build a bridge between Widener and Houghton.

According to a Crimson Key guide yesterday afternoon, Widener is the hub of the world's largest private library system, which has more than 100 separate libraries across the globe.

Widener itself, according to the guide, contains an astonishing five miles of books.

"It's incredibly large," she says.

Some students say the size of the library alone, not to mention the perplexing north-south-east-west directions and the two separate cataloguing systems, can be intimidating.

"I think it could be thinner. It's much too wide," says one Leverett sophomore. "Widener is confusing; it's not organized. It doesn't know what it wants to say. It's just there."

Even Cort, a Widener employee, admits that during his college years, he avoided the marble and brick monument.

"As an undergraduate, I almost never used Widener. I preferred libraries like Lamont and Hilles," Cort says. "Now it's second nature to me, but the stacks still can be intimidating."

And if the stacks are intimidating for a library veteran, they're even worse for a College sophomore.

"I usually don't go to Widener. I just don't like it," the Dunster sophomore says. "I don't feel like going up into the stacks. This [Lamont] is accessible."

Of course there are those who are drawn in by less conventional means than academic research.

There's always the real purpose of the stacks--the secluded B southwest section has an excellent reputation for that infamous undergraduate rite of passage.

But most students go to Widener for strictly scholastic purposes.

Some library buffs actually like to navigate the stacks in search of that elusive tome.

"Widener's easy to use. It's one big box," says Lamont employee Jeffrey I. Zaref '96. "[I prefer] Widener because I can take out books for longer."

The Tourist Trap

Although a sign on Widener's front door proclaims that tourists are not allowed inside, the Harvard monument is a major tourist attraction.

Three local residents yesterday made the trip to Harvard just to see the library.

They toured the memorial room and checked out the dioramas of Harvard through the ages.

"It's impressive," says Theresa S. Tang, of Westford, Mass.

She and her companions say the trip into Cambridge to see Widener was well worth it.

"Tourists are not afraid of Widener, because they don't know what Widener really is," says the Leverett sophomore.

According to a guard who was checking IDs at the stacks' entrance yesterday afternoon, some tourists and others not affiliated with Harvard are so eager to get inside, they try to sneak past her.

"They try to walk really fast past us," says the guard. "We catch some of them. We don't catch them all. We're not going to chase them down."

Some Harvard students avoid Widener precisely because of the tourists.

"I've worked in the poetry room [in Widener]," says a Lowell senior who asked to be anonymous when found working on her thesis in Lamont's Farnsworth Room. "But Widener's a little too touristy."

Hitting the Books

Of course, Friday afternoon found very few Harvard students hard at work in any of the Yard libraries.

But those few who had their noses to the grindstone say that it's often easier to get work done in the quiet confines of a library then at home.

"I only come to Lamont when I really have to get something done," says the Lowell senior. "It's a last resort. [Usually I study] at cafes, somewhere fun."

"There are some courses you don't have to study for, and some you do," says the Dunster sophomore. "I guess it pays off."

Others do research. But one Currier sophomore says she is determined not to set foot in Widener; she says she'll restrict her research to Lamont.

"I haven't had any [term papers yet]," she says. "But I'm taking one [Historical Study class] this term, so we'll see. But it's only 10 to 15 pages."

How Do They Stack Up?

Despite the 11 libraries available to him, the Leverett sophomore says he prefers the one closest to home.

"I like the Leverett House Library," he says. "I feel like I'm in a forest because of the tree theme."

Both the lamps and the columns in the art-deco New Leverett building are shaped like large oak or redwood trees.

"It's an incredible design," the sophomore says. "It probably should win an architectural award."

In terms of doing research, Widener, with its 10 floors of nothing but books, has the edge.

Underground Pusey Library also has. good research facilities, but for some it can be even scarier than Widener.

The movable stacks, labeled with signs saying `Do absolutely no levitating,' could potentially crush the unwitting student who removed both his feet from the floor.

"I've heard of it happening. It happened to someone I work with," says Jessica R. Martin, a Boston College junior who works at the Harvard Law School library.

"He was sitting [on a shelf] with his feet up. If your feet aren't on the floor, you get crushed; the sensors don't feel it," she says. "I think [the Pusey automated sliding stacks] really are dangerous. You have to keep your feet on the ground."

For studying, undergraduates head for Lamont, with its big comfy chairs.

"I worked here because I knew that everyone I know comes here," says Zaref. "This one's more fun [to work in]."

People have started to discover the Dunster sophomore's secret Farnsworth, or sleeping, Room. "It's smaller [with] nice windows, nicer lighting," says the Lowell senior.

Library employees recognize that for students, Lamont may be less intimidating.

"We're friendly," says Lamont research librarian Amy M. Kautzman. "For people who don't like to figure out Library of Congress versus Old Widener [cataloguing systems], we're pretty straight-forward."

"People tell me, both undergraduates and graduates, that it's easier just coming in [Lamont] and getting a book than going into Widener--going up three floors and down six floors and around the corner," she says.

But Lamont associate librarian Jon Lanham '70 stresses that each library in the Harvard system has its own strengths.

"For undergraduates, there's the obvious fact that they need to use Lamont and Hilles for reserves," Lanham says. "We encourage everyone to explore the resources everywhere."