The Harvard Depository

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Harvard Depository

Arguably one of the most intriguing libraries on the planet, the Harvard Depository is a climate-controlled facility located in Southborough, Massachusetts. Owned by Harvard University, this off-site, 200,000 square foot archival storage and retrieval site lies 30 miles from the Cambridge campus, and serves as a vital research unit for students, staff and researchers.

In terms of human knowledge, there is very little information on earth that can’t be found in storage at the Harvard Depository. It contains almost 10 million books, magnetic tapes, films, LPs and leaflets that are meticulously sorted according to size, type and owner – not subject. Each item is given a colour-coded sticker before it is lined up in an acid-neutral box. It is then bar-coded and kept on one of the three million, 30-foot tall linear shelves.

The facility has been likened more to a warehouse or a factory than a library. From the outside, the building is an unassuming, boxy concrete affair, comprising of several connected modules. Since the building was opened in 1986, it has expanded in size to increase its storage potential. Inside, the library is a whir of beeps from scanning machines, sensors and forklift trucks.

Although there are just 18 members of staff at the facility, they rely heavily on the precision of machines and equipment to sort, retrieve, track and manage stocks, as well as to maintain high-tech security and backups. Industrial forklift trucks are used to place books on shelves and move them around. Four times daily, books are transported by vans from the site to campus and then back.

Despite the reliance on technology to carefully manage stock at the library, staff at the facility take a very hands-on approach. Robots are not used to retrieve material, as humans are considered more careful at handling books than machines are. Crucially, humans can retrieve the items much faster than machines – once a request has been made for a book, it’s delivered to campus in a single working day.

What makes the Harvard Depository especially unique is that the temperature is strictly controlled in the building to help preserve the media stored within. Temperatures are set according to the media type, with films kept at 40 degrees Fahrenheit and books kept at 50 degrees Fahrenheit and 35% humidity. The temperature is constantly monitored at the Harvard Depository, where no more than a 3-degree variation is tolerated.

Although these strictly-controlled temperature conditions are capable of preserving media in the building for hundreds of years, ironically, the building itself has only been designed to last around 75 years.

A 24-minute documentary was recently made about the Harvard Depository, entitled ‘Cold Storage’. The intent of the programme was to reflect the temperature-controlled conditions within this revolutionary library facility.

Cold Storage Documentary

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