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Working at the Library: A Student's Perspective

I applied for a job at Borrow Direct at the beginning of my junior year. At $12 an hour, it seemed like a great gig. I’m one of many students who’ve worked at Harvard’s libraries, which currently employ approximately 600 of us. Almost 75% of Harvard Library’s student employees work in Access Services, but we’re represented across many departments including the University Archives, Harvard College Library, Information and Technical Services, Office for Scholarly Communication, and Preservation, Conservation, and Digital Imaging. 

Borrow Direct shifts run in two-hour blocks, 9–11 am and 11 am–1 pm, Monday through Friday. The morning workers go out into the collections and find the books to ship to participating schools in the Borrow Direct network, while the afternoon workers receive shipments from those schools and process them so that the books can be returned to their places of origin. I only had morning shifts, which meant sprinting up Plympton Street and through the echoey vestibule of Widener’s Mass. Ave. entrance at 8:58 am to make it to the office in time.

Once I was in the gray-carpeted office with posters, protocol reminders, and inspirational messages taped up on the walls (including one vintage Star Trek poster featuring a futuristic ship blazing into the cosmos), the first task of the morning was printing out the day’s requests on fluorescent pink paper and sorting them by location. Then we were off, two or three of us, rolling rickety metal carts into the stacks. This scavenger hunt was my favorite part of the job. The more time I spent perusing the shelves, my eyes dancing past dozens of white labels marked in tiny black print, the more I began to grasp the intricacy of the organization, the monumentality of this collection of knowledge. Often, my attention would be seized by a decorative spine or an outrageous title. It was hard not to get distracted.

After the books were located, I’d bring them back to the office, scanning each pull slip to make sure the system was keeping careful track of everything. During J-Term, my coworker and I had a race to see who could scan 40 books the fastest. We finished within a split second of each other, but I’ll still contend to this day that the split second was mine.

The final stretch is the packing part of the job. Books are organized by the school to which they’re headed and boxed up. Boxes hold up to 40 pounds and have to be organized carefully so that books won’t be damaged in transit. It’s a live version of Tetris, attempting to find the perfect arrangement of book sizes, weights, and boxes in the hopes of achieving perfection.

I realized I liked my job quite a bit. I was in close quarters with students I would never have met otherwise. While I didn’t get to be friends with them all, it was still a pleasure to meet and work alongside them. When I would go out and pull books requested by students from other universities, I got a glimpse of what sort of research and academic adventures were taking place in faraway places. Most of all, I was afforded time to become acquainted with Widener. As graduation day approaches, it’s the quiet time I got to spend among the multitudes of books that make me most wistful. 

By Robert Kim, Class of 2017.

Published on May 3, 2017.