Not a Crematorium for Books, but a Receiving Tomb

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People verily recall the Library of Alexandria for its eventful burning, but how many wonder whether also engulfed were the 48,000 duplicate scrolls remotely stored in the Egyptian quarter’s Temple of Serapeum? Such offsite holding was certainly on the mind of 1902 Harvard’s President Eliot: “I am not proposing a crematorium for dead books, but only a receiving-tomb. Neither am I proposing that the bibliophile or the antiquarian should be absolutely deprived of his idols, but only that his access to them should made somewhat less convenient and attractive.” Though not a tomb, but a crematorium for books in their prime was the fate of the 1764 Harvard library. Tour-mongers learn of its accidental burning replete with the flourish of the student who had evaded borrowing restrictions to survive a lone volume (and then reveal it at the outcome of his own expulsion). Whether for redundancy or efficiency, Harvard’s present answer to systemic remote library storage opened in 1986—the Harvard Depository. It is here our story begins.

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Students in the second meeting of the spring semester’s Humanities Studio 1 ventured to the woods of Southborough, MA—the kind of area that hosts a Pine Hill Drive and a Pine Hill Road within a mile-radius to the lament of field trip bus drivers, and as we would later learn, to delivery services.

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A flyover would showcase a structure composed of modular additions resembling a swappable hard drive array, or from the interior, an evocation of the Titanic’s vast water-tight compartments. With the grid-independent power generators and leak precautions, the Depository appears ready for an iceberg and its climate-controlled interiors seem to reminisce the northern Atlantic.

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As each interior cargo door upended by pull chords, the adventurers hastened through receiving and processing stations until
reaching the “general population” of item storage, where, gliding up “ladders” of shelving, are cherry-pickers. Their skilled operators can retrieve an item in a minute or less. The minutemen we saw were uniformed in protective harnesses as they steered their machines—the long expanses of shelving exponentially deadening their operative noise as they went back. Motion sensors flicker-illuminated each new section, the 9 million items in aggregate calling to mind the expanse you’d suspect of the warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant is stored. A gallery of convex mirrors paired each lane for the line of sight of the moving machines and purple-glowing fly zappers outfitted them against invaders. Awareness of this facility’s spatial and procedural layout lays the foundation for the semester’s course to explore the technical dimensions of libraries, depositories, and storage facilities alongside the research, development, and production of an experimental web documentary. Entitled Cold Storage, the course represents one of two humanities studios launching under a new rubric and helmed by Jeffrey Schnapp with the metaLAB team.