Seth Rolbein, deep in the stacks

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Seth Rolbein, deep in the stacks Don Saklad 4/18/97 12:00 AM

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Deep in the stacks

Besides 3.5 million books, Harvard's Widener Library harbors scholars,
thieves, eccentrics and a tale or two

By Seth Rolbein
The Boston Globe Magazine, Sunday, April 13, 1997, p. 14
in the Boston Sunday Globe New England's largest newspaper

Seth Rolbein is a freelance writer who lives in Truro, Massachusetts.

"A huge Mayan temple," one professor called it, plunked down at the
edge of Harvard Yark.  "It impresses the barbarians," pronounced a
Harvard historian named William Bentinck-Smith, employing the dry wit
for which the university if famous.  No doubt that was the intent to
impress.  A dominating facade of brick, limestone and granite; 30
steps rising to tall columns; a formal entrance, massive and
permanent.  These days, libraries are built to look inviting; this one
was built to look like a citadel.

But it takes a Harvard library card to experience what is truly
impressive about the Harry Elkins Widener Library, the biggest
academic library in the world.  A card gets you deep inside, where the
books (and the sometimes eccentric people who use them) hang out -- in
the stacks.  If Widener is an academic temple, then the stacks are the
catacombs, the place where mystery and inspiration reside.

The library's giant facade shields more than 3 million books, housed
on 10 levels.  From deep underground to six floors above Harvard Yard,
through narrow corridors lit by thousands of naked overhead light
bulbs, the stacks are a world apart.  The goal of the people who build
the collection these shelves hold, adding 100,000 new titles each
year, is nothing short of creating a complete set of everything of
importance written by anyone in any culture on the planet.

They don't succeed, of course.  But in trying, they have created an
almost inexhaustible resource.  People have spent the better part of
their lives exploring the stacks.  Students and scholars come from all
over the world to sit in the musky quiet, browse the long, dark rows
of tombs and grapple with theories both profound and arcane.  To these
people, Widener is an archeological site waiting to be explored, an
open mine laced with rich veins of gold.  "Tiers of joy," as Jan
Ziolkowski, Harvard professor of medieval Latin and comparative
literature puts it.

photographs by Mark Wilson / The Boston Globe
Clockwise from top left:

Widener Library's imposing facade;

Ron Tesler, assistant head of the stacks unit, reshelving books in one
of Widener's 10 levels of stacks;

the dignified grandeur of Widener's mezzanine;

head of stacks George Perrin in Room 500, where books are sorted onto
trucks for reshelving.

Because the library's policy allows people to mine the stacks on their
own, sifting for shards and points of knowledge, a subculture has
evolved within the library.  Different areas attract different kinds
of scholars.  But every level of the stacks is vulnerable to the
library's greatest threat: thieves, who have tried to loot the most
precious holdings.

So Widener, from the outside a stolid world class icon, from the
inside is kind of a funky scene.  Dante would have enjoyed this place,
visiting one layer after another, level after level full of strange
characters with unusual obsessions.

My own travels inside Widener began 25 years ago, as a college
freshman.  Then, as now, one person I would trust to guide visitors
through the descending circles of academe, a man who knows Widener as
well as anyone, is Charlie Montalbano.

Charlie Montalbano doesn't look much different from the way he did
when he was my boss, head of the stack division, where I worked my way
through school, reshelving books.  Barely 5 feet tall, he is a little
grayer, but still thin and full of the same energy that used to send
him bouncing around Widener like a pinball.  He held the job for
nearly 25 years, until in 1992, when he was transferred to become
manager of the New England Deposit Library, on Western Avenue in
Brighton, a storage facility shared by area universities.

The 10 floors of U shaped stacks were Montalbano's domain.  Widener
has a unique card catalog system, including classifications like "AH"
for ancient history, and "PSlav" for Slavic periodicals; Montalbano
wouldn't have to break stride to tell you that AH is on 5-SW (fifth
floor, Southwest) or that PSlav is on 1-E.  He knows things that no
one else seems to know.  "You ever wonder why the East elevator only
goes down to level C underground and the West side elevator goes down
another level, to D, the very bottom?  Because if the East side went
to D, it would break into the Cambridge sewer line, that's why!"

Montalbano arrived at Harvard in 1968 from Queens, New York.  He had
been in charge of one level of stacks at the New York Public Library
(which runs for two city blocks through midtown Manhattan).  After the
Library of Congress, which has 16.4 million books, the New York library
system houses the second largest collection in the United States, with
about 10 million volumes.  And then comes Widener, at nearly 3.5
million books.

Nancy Cline, who recently left Pennsylvania State University to become
the Roy E. Larsen Librarian at Harvard College, offers a bit of
perspective: Widener alone is as big as the 23 libraries at Penn State
combined.  Harvard's total collection, spread among 93 libraries
around the world, approaches 14 million books.

"If Harvard was to lose Widener," says Montalbano, "they couldn't run
this place as a university."

Harvard didn't always have Widener.  The library opened in 1915, to be
forever linked to the sinking of the Titanic, three years earlier.
Harry Elkins Widener, a young Harvard graduate, had been on board with
his mother and father.  Harry's mother was safely escorted to a life
raft, but Harry and his father went down with the ship.  Eleanor
Elkins Widener decided to fund a library to house, among many other
things, Harry's 3,000 book collection.

The building cost Widener more than $3 million.  The design was long
on grandeur, meant to be a permanent statement: In order to receive the
money, Harvard had to agree never to alter the physical exterior of
the library by as much as a brick.  But the design was short on
pragmatic workplace details.  "There is something humiliating," wrote
Harvard's Archibald Cary Coolidge, who was instrumental in getting
Widener built, shortly after the library opened, "in having to
proclaim to the world that we have 300 stalls in the new Library which
furnish unequaled opportunity to the scholar and investigator who
wishes to come here, but that in order to use these opportunities he
must bring his own chair, table and electric lamp."  The letter was
written to J. P. Morgan Jr., who got the message and donated money to
buy the hardware.

Assigning the stalls -- little open carrels that ring the stacks and
serve as makeshift workspaces for graduate students -- was one of
Charlie Montalbano's many responsibilities.  Foremost among his other
responsibilities was fighting a never ending battle to get every book
that wasn't checked out back on the shelves, ready and waiting to be
used again.  Then, as now, that battle was fought in a little area off
one corner of the fifth floor, known as Room 500.

Coming from the dark, composed grandeur of the stacks, opening the
door to Room 500 is like the moment in The Wizard of Oz when the
curtain is pulled back, revealing the small man beside the huge image
of the wizard.  Put it another way: Clearly Eleanor Widener's
architect never shelved books for a living.

Room 500 is roughly 20 feet by 30 feet.  There are books everywhere,
piled on shelves, lining the walls, spilling onto the floor.  All of
these books have recently been returned -- or simply taken off the
shelves, used elsewhere in the library and collected at the end of the

In Room 500, they are sorted, arranged by category and call number and
loaded onto trucks.  Each truck is a waist high wooden pushcart that
holds about 100 books on three shelves, mounted on small wheels so
that one person can roll a truck into the stacks.  Maneuvering down
narrow aisles, library shelvers slowly empty the trucks, refilling the
long lines of bookcases.

In Montalbano's day, half a million titles a year were shelved or
reshelved.  The new head of the stacks, George Perrin, reckons that
600,000 a year is a better estimate now.  He reports that it can take
10 days for a book in Room 500 to get back to its rightful place in
the stacks.

"And everybody's desperate to find the books they need," Montalbano
says.  "There was a very eminent professor who had one of the
prestigious private studies on the top floor, and he was getting old,
rest his soul, a little forgetful, and he badly needed this one book
that we just couldn't find and couldn't find.  Finally, I went up to
his study when he wasn't there, to look around.  And for some reason,
I picked up the pillow he had put on his chair.  And there is was,
underneath -- the book.  I couldn't tell him that he was sitting on it
the whole time; that would have been too embarrassing.  I just told
him I located it in the library.  Oh, he was so happy!"

The stacks are so extensive, and idiosyncratic, that finding books
even when they have made it back to where they belong can be a
scavenger hunt.  "When I first got here" in 1989, says Barbara
Mitchell, head of Widener's access services department, "it was pretty
clear that learning to use Widener was like a rite of passage, a test
of manhood.  And when people complained, we'd say, 'If you want it
easy, go to Boston College -- see if they have the books you want!'"

Perrin's staff includes one assistant, three full time workers and
about 30 part time shelvers.  The staff is smaller than it was 25
years ago, with a heavier load.  Even so, Perrin would rather have a
student take an hour to empty a truck than hurry and misplace books;
one a book is misplaced in Widener Library, it might be a very long
time before it's found again.

For the undergraduate shelvers, speed is not always of the essence.
The work is so solitary, and the variety of fascinating books
beckoning to be read is so great, that the temptation to linger and
browse is irresistible.

"I know you did it," Montalbano tells me, "Everybody did it.  I knew
kids would hide in the stacks.  This is a big place to hide.  I had
to remember that you were students; this wasn't your profession, or
your whole life.  And generally, the kids were great; they didn't
abuse it.  Don't you believe the very same thing is going on right

Martino Poggio, a freshman hoping to major in physics, has a truck
half done on the fourth floor.  "I had no idea how big these stacks
are,"  he murmurs.  "And sometimes, you find these books sitting in
there.  I don't know, they look like they must be worth thousands of
dollars.  Really old. ... They have stuff like Latin notes written in
them with a feather pen.

Poggio likes heading down to the deepest basement: level D.  "There's
an Italian section down there."  Poggio was born in Italy, though he
moved to this country as a young boy.  "I read Italian, but I don't
get a chance to very much -- except here."  He pauses, embarrassed.
"The only problem is, I don't get too much work done down there."

"Level D is my least favorite,"  says Anna Blair, a junior majoring in
Slavic literature and culture.  "It's creepy down there.  They found a
rusty old saw in the folios section one time.  Yuck."  She likes the
philology periodicals on 5-South, because they're usually neat and
even.  "You just go the empty space and stick a book in."  As a
junior, Blair now works in Room 500, building trucks rather than
roaming the stacks.

"I admit sometimes while we're working, we get into these bizarre
fantasies," adds Blair, "about writing murder mysteries set in
Widener.  Or playing Assassin or Paintball in the stacks."  She
hastens to clarify: Of course, we've never done that."

But strange things have been known to happen in the stacks.  There was
the time somebody took a raw fish and hid it behind the books on level
2.  "After a while, the smell was unbelievable, all the way to level
6,"  Montalbano remembers.  "So how did I find it?"  He laughs.  "I
followed my nose."

Mitchell, in charge of library "access," acknowledges that the word
can take on various shades of meaning; it's not entirely unusual, she
says, "for our security guys to find condoms in the stacks."

The true lore of the stacks has to do with obsession.  Not the Stephen
Kind kind -- although Widener would make a great setting for a horror
novel -- but how the place has become a hunting ground for answers to
what can only be described as obscure questions.  There is Eckehard
Simon, a Harvard professor of German philology who has been mining
Widener for more than 30 years, collecting information about
nonreligious plays performed in German speaking towns in the years
before the Reformation.  Michael McCormick, a Harvard history
professor, has explored Widener to find firsthand source material
showing the movement of Arabic coins across Europe after the fall of
the Roman Empire, helping prove a theory about early European
communication routes.  Leo Damrosch, professor of English and American
literature, became intrigued by a Quaker preacher of the 1600's named
James Naylor.  He dove into Widener and found virtually everything
Naylor had ever written, nearly 50 books and pamphlets.

Graduate students get into the act too.  Gabriela Carrion, a fifth
year graduate student sitting at her cramped little desk on the fourth
floor, is studying the literary representations of marriage and
divorce in Spanish theater in its golden age, the late 16th and early
17th centuries.  "There are books here I'm looking at that haven't
been checked out for 100 years," she says.  There's an old edition of
Don Quixote, 1865; I think I'm the first one to check it out.  And
here it is in the stacks.  This place is the best -- it's so good I
have no excuse for not finishing my thesis!"

While Carrion works in Spanish, just below her, on level 3, Matt
Wheeler is translating Vietnamese.  He recently transferred from the
University of Hawaii to explore Vietnamese history and Buddhist
tradition.  "It's amazing, the amount of stuff here," he says.  "It's
impossible to exhaust."

Deep in the darkness of level C, Mike Carlin is poring over an old
French text.  He's a visiting scholar, living in Brighton, who has
received special permission to use Widener for a book he is writing, a
biography of Napoleon.  "There are a lot of books that look like they
have never been touched, written in French or German," he says.  "For
someone like me, this is just remarkable."

"You don't actually hear the words," says Barbara Halporn, head of
Widener's collection department, "but there's a sense of 'Eureka!' all
over the place.  People are constantly walking around thinking, 'I
found it!  I found it!  Can you believe it's here?'"

Halporn's department is in the business of creating that feeling.  She
has a handful of full time specialists ordering books, trying to make
sure Harvard stays ahead of every academic curve.  The acquisitions
budget for Widener alone is more than $5.7 million this year; Harvard
always ranks first in the nation among research libraries for money
spent on books.

All of the university's buyers hold doctorates in their various
fields; they exercise their own judgment about what is worth adding to
the collection.  Their independence is a point of pride.  "We make 99
percent of the decision," one buyer emphasizes.  "The faculty is not
really involved."

These buyers fan out around the world.  Raymond Lum has traveled for
months at a time to Southeast Asia, where he browses through makeshift
book stalls made of chicken wire, makes his purchases and ships carton
after carton back to Cambridge.  "I've found books spread out on the
ground in front of temples in Tibet," says Lum.  "I found 10 years of
national statistics for Burma in a jewelry store.  The distribution
sometimes is minimal, so you have to go to the city or town where the
book was actually published."

Widener's buyers are building on a foundation of many generations.
"Harvard is so fortunate that there were people in the early years who
saved things," says Cline, the librarian, "from early music
collections, to Lewis and Clark charting the Pacific Northwest, to
early treatises on how science occurred.  ...It's like having an
entire world in front of you."

Widener is the largest library with open stacks (for those in the
Harvard community, at least) left in the country; at the Boston Public
Library, for example, you have to make a specific request and wait for
a library employee to fetch the book.  And even in this big bastion of
scholastic serendipity, the open stacks policy is under challenge for
two reasons: space and theft.

It took nearly 70 years, but Harvard finally filled Eleanor Widener's
library.  And because of her ironclad demand that the building's
exterior not be changed, this was a big problem.  Even with additional
storage created at Pusey Library (connected to Widener by an
underground tunnel), "we were very close to shelving books on the
floor and on the windowsills," remembers Barbara Mitchell, head of
access services.  The only solution was to build a depository for the
overflow.  In 1986, a book warehouse opened in Southborough 30 miles
West of Cambridge.  To get a book once it has been exiled there, you
must place a specific order and wait (usually a day) for delivery.
No browsing.  Nor serendipity.

And how did the change go over?  "Well, the faculty had a collective
fit," remembers one library employee.  But there was simply no choice,
because there was no room.  And every year, another 100,000 books go
to the depository.

Ken Carpenter, assistant director for research resources, decides
which books should stay at Widener and which should leave.  It's not
always a matter of what books show the most use.  Carpenter almost
never sends out autobiographies.  Often, he says, a personal account
will shed light on a moment in history even if the researcher is not
much interested in the author.  And "essential browsability" remains a
priority: "For example, poetical anthologies.  We have a large number
of them, going right back to the very first one.  Most aren't taken
out.  But I know if I send them to the depository, no one will ever
call them back.  They'll never be useful again.  That means no one
will be able to say, 'I wonder what women were considered good poets
back then?' and go find out."

The depository has careful climate control, which the Widener building
does not, and that helps keep books in good shape.  It also has
security: For all the celebration of Widener's openness, the price has
been high; untold scores of valuable books have been stolen, the
stacks looted despite increasingly sophisticated attempts to check
every person who comes and goes.

Book theft is not new to Harvard.  A well organized ring was exposed
as far back as 1931.  But trumpeting the subject in public has not
been Harvard's way; "We don't want to give anybody ideas," one staff
member whispers.  Still, Harvard Magazine brought the subject out of
the closet in this year's March/April issue, detailing a handful of
cases of book theft at Harvard and elsewhere.

In one infamous local case, a Spanish national named Jose
Torres-Carbonnel was suspected of stealing thousands of items from
Harvard, mostly from Widener.  When the police got a search warrant
for Torres' home, they found books and plates razored out of books,
1,500 pieces packed up and ready to be shipped to Spain.  Estimated
value: $500,000.  A shipment in transit was intercepted and reportedly
contained another 200 rare items worth $250,000.  Torres was caught
because a private collector who had bought a volume from a bookseller
in Granada, Spain, noticed a faint embossed mark that read "Harvard".
The trail led back to Torres.  Yet such success pointed to failure as
well: Despite bar codes, electronic sensors at every exit and guards
who check bags, the stacks were being bled.

As least in Torres case, there was a rational motive -- profit.  When
it came to Stephen Womack, a.k.a. the Slasher, money mixed with the
macabre.  Transferred from prison to a hospital to treat what doctors
saw as a serious mental illness, Womack reportedly determined to get
back at "the system" that kept him institutionalized for months after
his prison term was over.  When he was released in 1989, he found part
time work as a shelver at Widener, where he not only smuggled books
out of the library but also terrorized the stacks, maliciously
destroying books as he took his trucks from floor to floor, leaving
small mutilations in his wake.  He also stole extensively from
Northeastern's libraries, where he had enrolled as a student.

When Womack finally was caught, in 1994, police estimate that he had
stolen 1,200 books from Northeastern and 400 from Harvard, numbers
that don't include scores of ruined books.  Convicted of destruction
of property, Womack is serving time at MCI Norfolk.

Harvard officials now acknowledge that the biggest challenge for
Widener over the next 20 years, beyond budget constraints or space
limitations, will be trying to maintain open access while improving
security.  So far, despite all the problems, there is no serious call
to shut the stacks down.  To admit to such a failure, it seems, would
strike at the very core of the university's self image.

Not only that -- it would change the magic nature of the library
itself.  As Charlie Montalbano and I ascended, passing through dark
corridors, returning to the surface, I realized it had been half a
lifetime since I first made this trip, and Widener had changed less
than any place I know.  The stacks still have that brooding sense
about them: of secrets waiting to be explored, of the overwhelming
accumulation of the cultural mother lode, of the massive, ancient
power of the word.

Deep in the stacks

Besides 3.5 million books, Harvard's Widener Library harbors scholars,
thieves, eccentrics and a tale or two

By Seth Rolbein
The Boston Globe Magazine, Sunday, April 13, 1997, p. 14
in the Boston Sunday Globe New England's largest newspaper

Seth Rolbein is a freelance writer who lives in Truro, Massachusetts.