Category: Harvard Libraries

For the Library



Different people study differently. Personally, I do my best thinking when I’m in a lecture for another class.

This is a proposal for slightly distracted study. The Topical Table speaks to you at a volume which is only intelligible to those sitting at the table. It has no interface. It is not your personal speaker or your headphones — you choose by being there or not.

The Topical Tables can bring students together around a common interest. Librarians choose what sounds to play – it could be archived audio of a lecture, a favorite NPR podcast… anything they find interesting and want to share.


Asides from the slightly distracted study, the tables have other useful features. I observed that people in reading rooms with long tables will most often tend to sit at far corners from each other, not wanting to encroach upon what they feel to be someone else’s space. By placing a hole down the center of the tabletop, it becomes more like one long counter and decreases the perception of encroachment while also organizing laptop power cords. The beveled ends also assist in making a more communal table.


Field Ethnography: Law Library

The Law Library – certainly looks like one.

On Saturday and again yesterday, I visited one of the larger libraries on campus – the Law Library. The library has considerably more human activity than the other libraries I visited and a notably different study culture. There are a wide variety of types of study spaces here to accommodate this: a common room near the entrance, meeting rooms, computer rooms, individual desks, large tables, armchairs with coffee tables, offices, and probably other spaces besides.

A table for ten in the main reading room.

I conducted an observation of one of the large tables in the quiet reading room in order to learn more about their habits. Between 5 and 7 pm on Monday Sept. 17th, here is the log of activity at this table. The diagram below indicates the initial seating arrangement of the individuals.

Subjects A-G were initially seated in these locations as of 5:00 pm.

5:16 pm – C closes laptop, leaving open book on top, and leaves.

5:17 pm – A & B confer quietly over a book.

5:33 pm – F gets up, confers with E, E shows F something typed on a smartphone. C returns, confers with A, sits down.

5:35 pm – F packs backpack, checks smartphone, and leaves.

5:37 pm – C gets up with book, confers with A.

5:39 pm – C takes laptop to comfy chair by window, sits down.

5:44 pm – G packs backpack, leaves.

5:47 pm – A library tour group passes by, talking audibly.

5:50 pm – A walks over to adjacent computer cluster with book.

5:51 pm – D and E confer, D walks away. A returns to grab iPod/headphones. E and B confer.

5:55 pm – D returns, puts on headphones.

6:14 pm – E packs backpack, leaves.

6:15 pm – D packs backpack, confers with A at computer, leaves.

6:20 pm – B packs backpack, lets C know that her stuff is now unattended, and leaves.

6:21 pm – C returns to table.

6:31 pm – A confers with C, A and C pack backpacks and leave. The table is now empty.

A common posture for studying at one of the large tables.

From the observation of this table, several things were learned. First – what appeared to be 7 unconnected people arranged at this table turned out to be a group of 6 acquaintances and one loner – explaining the initial seating arrangement. Throughout the library people seem to prefer a buffer zone of at least one seat with those they are presumably unacquainted with. Second – nearly everyone has headphones, a laptop, and some form of beverage. Third – they do actually use books. Fourth – posture varies considerably and people alternate between working on the table surface or reading/typing in their laps.

Field Ethnography: Zoology (ish)

Suddenly, an elephant.

Last Thursday I went on a hunt for the zoology library. I found three libraries, an elephant head, and vaults full of tree parts. While wandering in the general vicinity of what I thought was my target, I first entered a stairwell and after ascending three flights was startled by an elephant head looming over it all. The doors leading off from this stairwell were locked.

A glimpse into the Herbaria, which was closed at the moment.

Onto another entrance, I find the Farlow Library and Herbaria. The Herbaria is closed but looks like it’s probably a very nice space if one shows up during the right hours.

The index books for the plant vaults.


The Farlow Library is on a few floors within this same building and contains rows of vaults full of manila folders. These folders each have plant material in them – sticks and leaves. It’s pretty cool. There are a few people in the library, flipping through the indexes of the vaults.

The manila folders contain plant material and papers.

But since all I can find are plants and human animals, I decide this isn’t the library I’m looking for and I search for another door from the outside. I locate another library, on the 2nd floor of a building adjacent. This, the Mayr Library, is part of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. There aren’t too many people around here either – there’s the staff, sitting at a circulation desks in the cozy main room, and a few students hiding near windows within the stacks.

The main room of Mayr Library – cozy.


It seems likely that most of these have selected this study location for its quiet and isolation – I don’t see them going to look for books on the stacks. I myself choose to sit down for a few hours in one of the mismatched (but comfortable) chairs in order to use the wi-fi. There isn’t much change over these hours, no one walks through my part of the reading room, the window air conditioner keeps at it, I watch people out the window instead.

Harvard Depository

Last week, Tuesday, we visited the Harvard Depository. This facility is where they store approximately 9.2 million items not in regular circulation in Harvard’s libraries. 90-92% of these holdings are books, which translates to somewhere in the neighborhood of 8.5 million volumes.

The items are brought to the Depository from the libraries in large plastic bins. Once at the facility they are sorted and scanned for storage. Sorting is based solely upon size and library of origin.

This frame is used to gauge the size of the volume before it is placed in a corresponding cardboard container.

After processing, the cardboard containers of items are moved into the storage aisles and shelved by workers driving cherry picker vehicles.

Cherry picker or book picker?

The rooms where all of these shelves are is kept at a cool 50 degrees F.

Shelving items on Aisle 22.

Oh hi.