Beyond The Stacks

Inside Harvard University Library's Depository

Michael E. Danto

In the mind of a romantic, the consummate library houses endless rows of stacks that have acquired the thick, musty odor of quaint history. The towering shelves are lined with all the books in the world, creating a kaleidoscope of color and subject matters.

But such an idealized vision does not reflect the complex reality of Harvard University Library, a sprawling system whose growth has been challenged by financial and space constraints. In the words of University Provost Steven E. Hyman, Harvard’s library system is “labyrinthine”: there are 73 libraries, which manage over 16 million volumes with the help of a staff of approximately 1,200 and a combined operating budget of nearly $160 million.

And yet, with the University constantly aiming to expand its holdings, the Cambridge campus has found itself running low on open shelf space.

In anticipation of this problem, the University finished in 1986 construction of the Harvard Depository, a mysterious storage facility in a publicly undisclosed location 30 miles from campus where large tracts of land are less expensive than in Cambridge. While the facility was originally intended to store Harvard’s least-used volumes, it is now home to 45 percent of Harvard’s collections. David Lamberth, chair of the Library Implementation Work Group, calls it a “precise warehouse” for which the term “library” would prove inaccurate.

Now, with Harvard considering sweeping restructuring of its library system and reexamining its capacity for expansion, the University may be forced to rely even more heavily on less tangible means of  materials collection—including at off-campus sites such as the Depository. With shelf space running dry in Cambridge, the Depository is a critical component of Harvard’s vision of the modern library, whose holdings are first found online rather than on the shelves themselves.



The Harvard Depository: Beyond the Stacks

The Harvard Depository: Beyond the Stacks

While the facility may not offer patrons the physical immediacy of resources that defines a navigable library like Widener, it does provide the University with cheap and efficient storage for its overwhelming collections.

“The digital revolution has fundamentally changed the way human beings collect and disseminate information,” Hyman said in a task force statement. “As we build upon Harvard’s outstanding collection, we must envision what the library of the 21st century should be.”


In November, a task force charged with examining Harvard’s libraries released its final report critiquing the overly ambitious scope of the system’s collection strategy. The libraries, the report stated, could “no longer harbor delusions of being a completely comprehensive collection.”

Infamous for its convoluted administrative structure, Harvard’s ring of 73 libraries operates under varying data systems, redundant collection habits, poor interlibrary communication, and no clear chain of command.

A focal concern is that the libraries can no longer maintain physical ownership of their expanding collections. Given the on-campus space constraints and the skyrocketing costs of many journals, the task force report recommends that the libraries de-emphasize accumulating physical collections in favor of simply offering patrons digital access to resources.

Such a move could be implemented through online services, collaboration with neighboring institutions, and—in a compromise between ownership and accessibility—expansion of the Depository itself.


Like an industrial facility, all aspects of the Depository are geared toward maximizing the efficiency of its operations.

The Depository has concrete floors, orange warning stripes to guide the forklifts, and 30-foot high shelves. Books are stored in shelves of complementary size to ensure the most efficient use of space. Even the floors are expertly designed to be completely level so that the forklifts do not lean against the shelving.