Harvard’s paper cuts

School library works to maintain stature in the shift to digital

Nearly half of Harvard University’s 16.5 million-volume university-wide collection is stored at a climate-controlled facility in Southborough. Nearly half of Harvard University’s 16.5 million-volume university-wide collection is stored at a climate-controlled facility in Southborough. (Jim Harrison)
By Tracy Jan
Globe Staff / May 24, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — The thin, tattered book, an 1899 dissertation on Homer, written in French, is tucked into one of the more than 40 shelves devoted to the epic poet in the stacks of Widener Library. Collecting obscure works like this one has helped Harvard amass the world’s largest university library.

The 16.5 million volumes universitywide span a range of esoteric topics, from the manuscripts of Ukrainian political leaders to the field notes of famous horticulturists. Harvard owns so many books, serials, and other items that it now houses nearly half of the collection in a climate-controlled warehouse 25 miles away in Southborough.

But the days of accumulating every important title and artifact under the scholarly sun are over for Harvard’s labyrinthine system of 73 libraries.

Facing an unprecedented budget crunch, the university cancelled print copies of more than 1,000 journal titles last year in favor of online subscriptions. And Harvard is turning toward other universities to collaborate and share acquisitions, all while trying to maintain its libraries’ stature in an increasingly digital world.

“We need to worry less about buying everything, and instead ensure that we have access to these materials,’’ said David Lamberth, a divinity school professor who is overseeing a group tasked with reinventing Harvard’s libraries. “The real issue is giving present and future scholars the ability to find what they need to find.’’

Students can now sit in their dorms and order books directly from their computers to be delivered within 24 hours to the library of their choice from the Harvard Depository, a high-density storage facility where a forklift is required to fetch books from 30-foot shelves. In some cases, students can avoid the library altogether; materials can be downloaded or the library will scan relevant book chapters and e-mail them.

Harvard’s shift in priorities from acquisition to access, though, does not sit well with some professors, especially faculty in the humanities and social sciences who fired off a letter to president Drew Faust last winter decrying the slowing rate of acquisitions and staff cuts. The number of physical volumes added per year fell from 429,000 in 2004-05 to 349,000 in 2008-09, library officials said.

Faculty fear that any further decline would jeopardize research and teaching, and erode the foundation Harvard was built on 372 years ago when minister John Harvard bequeathed his library to the nation’s first university.

Said the letter, signed by more than 100 professors: “Digitization is not a panacea. . . . We risk an irreversible slide that will mark the period 1995-2015 as the onset of Widener’s undoing as the world’s greatest university research library.’’

While one Harvard scientist notably suggested that the entire collection of Widener — the university’s flagship library built in 1915 as a gift from the family of an alum who had perished aboard the Titanic — be tossed in the Charles River, humanists say Harvard’s “iconic temples of learning’’ should be declared a national treasure.

Harvard administrators, though, say the university cannot possibly maintain its previous rate of acquisition given the surging number of print and digital works at prices outpacing inflation.

“At an institution such as Harvard, the appetite for more content is constantly growing, but we’re always limited by budget, and our priorities must be balanced with what’s now being taught,’’ said Nancy Cline, Harvard College librarian.

Just as rows of computers have replaced card catalogs — antiquated wooden drawers of well-thumbed index cards listing each book and author — that once filled the ornate reference room at Widener Library, technology, once again, is redefining how a modern university library functions.

Widener itself seems caught between two eras. In the basement, technicians in a conservation lab painstakingly restore crumbling 19th-century tomes so they remain fit for circulation. Down the hall, other library staff in the digital-imaging lab scan yellowing newspapers, fragile maps and photographs, rare Chinese scrolls, and other works into the university’s electronic archives.

The number of digital items, including text, images, and audio files, soared from 1.2 million in 2003-04 to 12.4 million last year. During that period, electronic resources — journals, books, and databases — rose from 6,058 to 370,696.

“Online resources are the first step for most students these days,’’ said junior Shana Caro, a human evolutionary biology major who said she relies mainly on electronic resources for research. “I have access to pretty much any major science journal from my laptop.’’

Today’s library boundary extends beyond Harvard Yard, down the river to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where Harvard recently forged a partnership to give undergraduates at both institutions access to each other’s collections. Harvard might also finally join a decade-old Ivy League library consortium. And Harvard Law School is in discussions with other law schools about having each school collect in specialized areas.

Harvard’s libraries are no longer solemn tombs of silence. These days, undergraduates flock to the library to socialize as much as to study, thanks to a popular cafe, opened three years ago in Lamont Library, where they can eat, drink (coffee, tea, juice, and Red Bull), and even talk until 2 a.m.

On a recent afternoon, students chatted in groups and on their cellphones, while others at neighboring tables tapped out papers on their laptops and studied for finals.

“This doubles as a social spot and a place to get work done,’’ said Jarell Lee, a senior writing a final paper for an African-American studies class. “When I get tired of working in absolute silence, I come here.’’

The new amenities are a way to draw undergraduates back into the libraries.

“Libraries have to think of themselves as innovation centers, and not just repeat what we have done in the past,’’ said Harvard Law professor John Palfrey, who is a leading a project to shape the future of the school’s libraries.

Palfrey has added engineers, statisticians, and graphic designers to the law school library staff. His team is working on a Web application that browses a virtual bookshelf with works stacked against one another to re-create the experience of wandering through musty stacks and serendipitously stumbling upon titles.

The library is also planning to build a virtual reference desk, where students who rarely seek the help of librarians can solicit research advice without having to set foot in a library. Librarians would assist students through e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, and Skype.

“Some people would like to think that the library itself has become a sort of museum which is cute and has nice, old things in it,’’ said classics professor Richard Thomas. “But that’s fiction. What it collects and stores are going to get even more use because one gets access to them electronically. More people can find it now.’’

Tracy Jan can be reached at