Inside Harvard’s Home for Books

A new documentary explores the three million feet of shelving at the Harvard Depository.

The soundtrack of the Harvard Depository is, like that of most libraries, largely silent. But that quiet is punctuated not by the sounds of a browsing scholar, wandering the stacks and thumbing through pages. Rather, there’s a factory-like quality to the book depository—the whir of a cherrypicker, moving up through shelves (where books are arranged in cartons by size, not subject); the ping of a scanner, noting the bar code of a requested item; and the beeping of a truck, backing out to carry its haul back to Cambridge.

These are the sounds of Cold Storage, a new, 24-minute documentary about the Harvard Depository produced by the metaLAB (at) Harvard. The film, which premiered last Friday in a packed event at the Graduate School of Design’s (GSD) Piper Auditorium, explores the function of the Southborough, Massachusetts, storage facility. It represents one product of a years-long study of the future of libraries, and was produced in conjunction with a “humanities studio” course last spring, which attracted students from the GSD and the Graduate School of Education (see “The Library Test Kitchen,” July-August 2012, and “Toward Cultural Citizenship,” May-June 2014).

Cold Storage is also what producer and narrator Jeffrey Schnapp—the founder and director of metaLAB, who is also a professor of romance languages and literatures and teaches in the GSD’s department of architecture—called on Friday an “experiment in publishing.” Much of the film’s narration is adapted from The Library Beyond the Book, the 2014 book that he wrote with metaLAB senior researcher Matthew Battles, the film’s executive producer. The Cold Storage website (found here) offers further interactive content, linked throughout the film.

The film introduces viewers to the depository’s 127,000 square-foot building, where three million linear feet of shelving house nine million individual items, and counting (see “Gutenberg 2.0,” May-June 2010). Outside, a drone’s-eye view shows a sprawling, boxy concrete building, made up of seven connected rectangular “modules.” The building has expanded repeatedly since the depository opened in 1986, as the need for storage has grown. That scale alone—coupled with the complete lack of columns, marble, and other adornments typically associated with grand libraries—was “estranging” on his first visit to the depository, director Cristoforo Magliozzi ’11, a project coordinator at metaLAB, recalled on Friday. “A lot of the cinematography set out to project that scale,” which is in many ways not a human one, he added.

As the camera moves inside, it exposes the processes that keep the depository running. A skeleton crew of workers operates an automated system to organize books, films, and papers and maintain the conditions to preserve them. The film’s title is a reference to the climate control—50 degrees Fahrenheit and 35 percent humidity—designed to preserve books for several hundred years. The architectural irony, Schnapp noted, is that the concrete building itself has a lifespan of just about 75 years. “We have this structure whose contents will outlive by a multiple of five, maybe more, the envelope, the container, in which they find themselves,” he said on Friday.

Four times each day, vans arrive to shuttle books to Cambridge and back, transporting around 250,000 items a year. But that number has been declining, as students and scholars rely more and more on online resources. The convenience of digital can be hard to trump; the vans that cover the two dozen miles from Southborough to Cambridge on the highway are traveling 11 million times slower than a digital download, Schnapp notes in the documentary.

Friday’s event emphasized how the film seeks to clarify the way the depository represents a link to both the past and future of libraries as repositories of knowledge. The event also served as an opening for Icons of Knowledge, a new exhibition on the typology of national libraries in the GSD’s Loeb Library. One such institution—France’s Bibliothèque Nationale—served as a special inspiration for Cold Storage, which is in part an homage to and extension of the 1956 exploration by Alain Renais of that Paris library, Toute La Memoire du Monde (“All the World’s Memories”). Both works were shown at Friday’s event to highlight how the conception of knowledge storage has changed since Renais filmed, before the promise, and chaos, of the Internet. Cold Storage opens with a clip from the beginning of the Renais film—a shaky, black and white image of a storeroom overrun by stacks of papers, newsprint, and books—as Schnapp offers a translation of the original film’s narration: “Because their memory is short-lived, humans accumulate an infinity of memory aids. Confronted with the teeming warehouses that result, panic sets in. They fear being trampled by books, submerged beneath heaps of words. So to ensure their freedom, they erect formidable fortresses.”

The Bibliothèque Nationale’s nineteenth-century building, with its beautiful reading rooms and warren of stacks, was and is one such fortress. The Harvard Depository, an admittedly banal building defined by its efficient function rather than its welcoming form, represents a fortress of knowledge of a very different kind. On Friday, Battles, Cold Storage’s executive producer, contrasted how the two films present our ability to catalog the never-ending stream of new books. The Renais film, he said, was “drenched in this sentiment that there’s some kind of long sentence that all of this knowledge production is eventuating in. That there’s going to be a period at the end of the sentence somehow, and it will be this word ‘happiness.’ Well, the Depository is a place that accepts the provisionality of knowledge, the unfinishedness of knowledge. It doesn’t expect there to be a period; there’s an ellipsis.”

Read more articles by: Stephanie Garlock

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