Putting Books Out to Pasture: Whither the Stacks?

SOUTHBOROUGH--Tom Schneiter has an entry from the Harvard Online Library Information System (HOLLIS) pinned to the bulletin board in his office.

The book, an obscure work on linguistics titled How the Irish Speak English, has special meaning for Schneiter, a Harvard library administrator. The title is one of only two volumes that the Harvard Depository, the University's high-density book storage facility, has been unable to locate in over 14 years of operation.

With between 350 and 400 requests for retrievals each day, that's a success rate of well over 99.99 percent.

When it comes to innovations in library administration, glitzy new information technology generally gets the press. Yet the speed and glamour of digitized archives and meticulously cross-referenced databases overshadow one of the more fundamental changes in the structure of the modern research library: the invention of the book warehouse.

The accuracy rate isn't the only benefit of facilities like the Harvard Depository, which was one of the nation's first--and still the most innovative--high-density book storage facilities.


Students and scholars sometimes bemoan the fact that books in the Depository cannot be browsed, but the space-efficient warehouses can be climate-controlled for better preservation of materials, and are much less expensive to construct than traditional stacks.

The Ron Lane Show

The Harvard Depository would be a completely foreign environment to your average librarian.

But then again, there are no librarians at this special library.

"I'm actually the only person on the staff with a library background as opposed to a warehousing background," says Schneiter. He's the assistant director of the Harvard University Libraries and oversees depository--and his office is in Holyoke Center.

The depository, which Schneiter jokingly calls "The Ron Lane Show," was the brainchild of Ronald Lane, the longtime facilities manager and originator of most of the warehouse's innovative techniques.

The team of Lane and Schneiter-- both pleasant, silver-haired men, quick with a laugh--are a bibliophilic Laurel and Hardy.

Schneiter, who has been working in libraries for more than a quarter of a century, tends to use library terminology that makes Lane roll his eyes.

Lane, like most of the staff, came from a career in the warehousing industry. He was working at Iron Mountain, Inc., a record management company, when Harvard resolved to build the first incarnation of what would eventually become the depository.

For the first few years, Iron Mountain managed the facility, but in 1990 Harvard took the helm and the staff became Harvard staff.

The depositor is now administrated from Holyoke Center, though it bears the imprint of its warehousing origins.

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