Beyond The Stacks

Inside Harvard University Library's Depository

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The Depository’s financing was not created with the expectation of the high circulation that it now faces. Member libraries pay for storage in an inefficient client-based business model, in which a book’s owner—a particular school within the University—pays for all of the costs associated with the item, even if the beneficiary is affiliated with another unit.

For example, if a College student who requests a book deposited by Harvard Medical School, HMS pays the $2.15 fee associated with the book’s circulation.

“The current model combines disincentives to storing materials at [Harvard Depository] with procedures that punish the most generous providers of materials,” the task force report states.

The report, which makes a critical assessment of the Depository, presents a series of reforms for the once state-of-the-art facility to better align it with the University’s current library system.

The proposals include the construction of a new, more accessible facility that could sustain 50 years of collection expansion. The new building would allow the current structure to serve its intended purpose of a minimally-circulating, “dormant” storage facility.


The Harvard Depository: Beyond the Stacks

The Harvard Depository: Beyond the Stacks

The task force also recommends an administrative change in which the school affiliated with the requester pays for the delivery rather than the book owner.


In the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, the holy tabernacle is laid to rest in a government warehouse, boxed up and stacked in a sea of unidentifiable cardboard boxes. As Peter Kosewski, communications director for the University libraries, likes to say, the Depository is not so different.

Like the lost relic, the books in the Depository are out of sight and distanced from their readers—but perhaps this is the future of libraries in a time of expanding resources, limited space, and changing methods of delivering information.

Harvard’s library collection has grown increasingly reliant on the Depository, an often overlooked component of a world-renowned library system that has been vaunted as the symbol of Harvard’s prestige and intellectual prowess.

“It isn’t simply one of the jewels in the crown of Harvard,” said Jeffrey F. Hamburger, professor of German art and architecture and the chair of a FAS advisory committee that represents the faculty’s library concerns, of Harvard’s evolving library system. “You could say that it is the crown.”

—Staff writer Noah S. Rayman can be reached

—Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached