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Mission Impossible: Finding Library Books



When a person first steps into the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, the second largest in the world behind the Library of Congress, the first question that comes to mind is "where are all the books?" I talked with my friends, and no one I knew had ever actually found a book there. My mission would be to find sometbing to verify that Widener was a library and not a fraudulent tourist attraction like the "John Harvard" statue, a monument to a student whom the faculty thought looked cool.

Finding one book would be too easy. My goal was to find three pieces of literature in the stacks in 30 minutes: one book, one pamphlet and one magazine. The topics, chosen at random, would be snails, Buddha and George Washington. Before I could hunt down my targets, I had to locate them using the HOLLIS computer terminals, which involved deciphering a series of encrypted codes derived from five ancient languages. To find a magazine article on snails, the following steps were necessary:

1) Read the HOLLIS manual. This is why at least three years of foreign language study is required before attending Harvard.

2) Type 'SU SNAILS' to give me a listing of articles about snails.

3) There were 113 items listed (how could 113 people care about snails?) so I chose to view articles on African snails.

4) Now a choice of articles about African snails was displayed. I chose the one pertaining to the smuggling of African snails into the U.S.--a bigger problem than you may think.

5) I could not access the location of the article, understandable because there is no telling what would happen if African snail smuggling information were to fall in the wrong hands. With no way out of my predicament, I turned to help from the man sitting next to me.

6) The man sitting next to me, wearing dark shades and a plain black tie, typed in a series of commands to pinpoint the article's location. I may not reveal these secrets due to a Secret Service oath that he made me take. I may only mention that the article was in Time magazine, May 4, 1992, v139, n18, p24(2), B-52. Many men died to bring us this information.

Using approximately the same number of steps and occasionally enlisting the help ofthe man next to me, I also found that F. Pavlenkov wrote a book on Buddha, located on the fourth floor at BL72.P38. I993X.RX-7. The Massachusetts George Washington Bicentennial Commission wrote pamphlet number three on George, also located on the floor, but at US. 4591.290.F-14.

My 30 minutes were now officially under way, and I quickly realized that I had overlooked one crucial detail--I still had no idea where Widener kept its books. I ran in circles panicking until a friend advised me to ask the man at the information desk where they were. The plan was so crazy it just might work. I followed the man's directions: made a right and opened the door that said "book return" (The reader may note a point of irony: I had not yet seen any books, but I now knew where to return them). I then proceeded to the "book return" desk and made another right. To pass security clearance, I had a stare-down with "Martha," the ID checker, flashed her my card and walked towards another door which I opened. At this point a man asked me, "Will the sparrow fly at night?" to which I answered "Only if the butterfly flaps its wings." We then performed our secret handshake (obviously, I cannot reveal the details due to its explicit confidentiality), and he let me pass.

I was now in the stacks. From here I hopped on an elevator and pressed the button for the fourth floor. After exiting, I looked around for five minutes until I found the aisle containing BL.72.P38.1993X.UB40, the site of Pavlenkov's stirring tell-all on Buddha and his religion. Lying in the aisles were the bodies of Richard I and other crusaders who had given their lives in the quest for a book from Widener. I found the spot where the book should have been, but it was not there. Someone, or something, was plotting to stop me from finding this book. It was probably the Communists. I attempted to call Robert Stack of "Unsolved Mysteries," but his secretary refused to put my call through, because she said that I call too often about "trivial matters" and that I have a tendency to "make things up." I tried to explain how the fact that I had found my tube of toothpaste uncovered one morning when I know that I had covered it the night before was not trivial, but unfortunately I had only 22 minutes left, leaving me no time to argue with a simpleton.

My next assignment was finding the Bicentennial Commission's pamphlet on George. Its call number was US4591.290, but by mistake I searched the US 4600 aisle for two minutes. This error would nearly prove fatal. I quickly proceeded to the correct aisle and found pamphlet number three. It looked old enough to be George's autobiography, but that was the least of my concerns. Where were pamphlets numbers 1 and 2? The envelope containing number three showed signs of tampering and foul play, and I once again I suspected the work of the Communist party. I decided not to bother Bob Stack with this one--I'd handle it myself at a later date.

After taking the elevator downstairs to the periodical room, I had 17 minutes left. The lady there explained to me that my desired article was in Lamont Library on microform. I rushed over to Lamont, fearing that if I were too late, the delicate secrets of African snail smuggling would fall into the wrong hands and be lost from the free world forever.

Twelve minutes remained when I reached Lamont. I thought victory was assured, but I had not yet encountered the greatest foe to any time-dependent operation: bureaucracy. In Harvard's never-ending quest for dlversity, the administration sought lazy bureaucrats to counteract the enthusiasm of the student body. Their indifference towards eager library patrons is an art form. I waited for three minutes to receive help because they could not cut short their mediation and deep relaxation exercises which those who do not know better would be tempted to describe as sleep.

Upon finally receiving help, I learned that the microform I needed was contained in drawer number 3504. I found it with eight minutes left, and my premature exultation in victory overlooked one last step: opening the drawer. The drawer, one indestructible foot of rugged steel, was one in a long line of many diabolical products concocted in Harvard laboratories. For three minutes I attempted to open it, but to no avail. I pulled, tugged, and tried to sweet talk the drawer into opening.

After it stood firm against my advances, I lost my cool and threatened to haul it to the junkyard. But it would not budge, so I had no choice. I asked the bureaucrat for help. There were only five minutes left, and when he said that he'd "be right over," I abandoned all hope. Still, I did everything I could to make the drawer open. I used reverse psychology, and I faked leaving the room so that it would let its guard down, then snuck up behind it and attempted to pry it open.

The cabinet laughed at my feeble attempts, but with only 30 seconds remaining, a miracle occurred. The bureaucrat came to help me and due to his long-standing relationship with my steely foe, he was easily able to coax it open with 10 seconds to spare. I grabbed the microform as time expired. I had beaten the library. I had found the location where all three works should have been.

My attention quickly turned back to the strange disappearence of the Buddha book and pamphlets numbers 1 and 2. The periodical lady had been friendly, almost too friendly. What did she have to hide? Maybe a Russian accent...

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