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Where the Library Gets Its Books

A "book picker" retrieving a book from the shelves of the Harvard Depository in the "Cold Storage" documentary (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)
A “book picker” retrieving a volume from the shelves of the Harvard Depository in the “Cold Storage” documentary (all screenshots by the author for Hyperallergic)

Up on a hill in a guarded compound, not far from where Harvard University keeps its primate labs, a 127,000-square-foot structure holds the heart of the institution’s library. With its concrete exterior lined with utility tubes, the Harvard Depository may not look like much, but inside are “nine million items and counting,” as narrator Jeffrey Schnapp explains in the new short documentary “Cold Storage.”

Screenshot from "Cold Storage"
Still from “Cold Storage” (click to enlarge)

Schnapp produced the film, which is hosted on an interactive website embedded with mapped features like soundscapes, with Matthew Battles. Both work at the Harvard metaLAB, where Schnapp is founder and director and Battles is senior researcher. They collaborated on the 2014 publication The Library Beyond the Book, and the film is a continuation of their focus on the future of the library. “Cold Storage” had its premiere this month in conjunction with the opening of Icons of Knowledge, an exhibition on the architecture and symbolism of national libraries, in the school’s Loeb Library.

Floor plan of the Harvard Depository
Floor plan of the Harvard Depository

The Harvard Depository opened in 1986 and has expanded almost continuously since, with seven modules constructed and room for eight more. Even back in 1902, Harvard’s then president Charles William Eliot saw the need for an offsite storage facility, not “a crematorium for dead books, but only a receiving tomb.” As is the case with libraries everywhere, the amount of printed material produced and collected was far too cumbersome to keep on-site without creating Collyer brothers–level clutter. So now, about 25 miles from the Harvard campus, human “book pickers” rise on machine lifts among the 30-foot-high shelves to retrieve books and other media organized by size in acid-neutral boxes. These are then brought to the campus library about four times a day by truck.

In its 24 minutes, “Cold Storage” borrows from and responds to Alain Resnais’s 1956 Toute la mémoire du monde (All the World’s Memories), an expedition to the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. Over 50 years later, the modern library is much more about machine organization and retrieval, although human hands still manage each book request in the depository. However, as Matthew Sheehy, head of access services at Harvard Libraries, points out in the film, “because of the trend towards electronic books and electronic journals, the percentage of the collection that gets used is declining, but the collection continues to grow.” While library research might rely increasingly on digital platforms, these growing repositories of knowledge remain, climate-controlled and managed in colossal facilities, the real world of the online catalogue.

View the “Cold Storage” documentary and interactive site online.

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