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Books, Tradition Untouched in Eliot's Library

By Andrew K. Mandel, Crimson Staff Writer

One of Harvard President Charles W. Eliot's first acts in office permitted undergraduates to borrow books from the College's shelves.

More than 125 years later, no one seems to want to take Eliot up on his offer--at least not in the library of the House that bears the president's name. Residents have checked out about three dozen books from the library's nearly 12,000-volume collection since December.

But the grand library, hidden on the second and third floors in the House's deceptively dingy C-entry, has a loyal following, and understandably so. The airy chamber, its entrance adorned with ornate woodwork, reeks of the deliciously pretentious trappings of pre-randomization Eliot House.

"There aren't very many new books, but that's part of the charm: It's your quintessential old school library in a lot of ways," says Winifred M. Li '00, a House librarian.

The treasure trove of tradition includes a 1563 copy of Cicero's letters, part of a larger donation of Classics from former House Master John H. Finley Jr. '25, as well as a signed edition of The Confidential Clerk, penned by former House resident T.S. Eliot '10.

The musty library also boasts large portraits of House notables, presidential coins, two turn-of-the-century oars won by crew champion Roger "Frisky" Bigelow Merriman, Class of 1896 and the House's first master. A side room houses a harpsichord and an extensive record--yes, record--collection.

But most students who visit the library don't bother with the books. They haul their laptops to the hall's hardwood tables, or settle into ample couches for a study session underneath the golden glow of focused lights until closing time at 1 a.m (7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays).

The library boasts a small annex, and those desperately seeking solitude can snake their way up a tightly-wound spiral staircase to an additional table and chair.

All of this studying makes a job at the House library one of the nicer options for work-study students.

"If you work in Lamont, you actually have to do work," laughs head librarian Grace Liu '00.

Liu is only half-serious, though. She and her staff stock current periodicals like Sports Illustrated and Vibe and manage a popular 250-title video collection, with tapes ranging from "Strictly Ballroom" to "Varsity Blues" available on two-day loan.

Despite the new titles, Eliot House has not forgotten its old-school past--its computerized card catalog is still stored on an antiquated Macintosh Classic.

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