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The Many Roles of the Phillips Reading Room

Phillips Reading Room Staff  
(l to r): Tom Bruno, Phillips Reading Room Supervisor; Eugenia Dimant, Evening/Sunday Phillips Reading Room Desk Assistant; and student worker Elissa Johnk.

– The term reading room suggests a quiet study area, but the Phillips Reading Room in Widener Library is far more than that. Playing host to a wide variety of patrons, it serves the research needs of those both Harvard-affiliated and not who rely on the room’s staff members for collections access.

Converted from an exterior library space (one of the former light courts) into a naturally well-lit reading room during the Widener renovation, the reading room opened in fall 2001 as a gated room with a rare library atmosphere, says Thomas Bruno, Phillips Reading Room Supervisor. Designed to provide access to rare and non-circulating materials in a controlled environment, many became fond of using the new room just to study. When it became cumbersome to sign patrons in and out, HCL removed the gate.

"There are people who just camp out in the Phillips Reading Room," says Bruno. "Entire dissertations have been written here. I think they love the room because of the skylight."

But that’s the tip of the iceberg, as the Phillips Reading Room is different things to different people. For Harvard ID holders, it’s where they go to access the rare and non-circulating collections items that they’ve requested through HOLLIS, as well as ILL items and archival or unique materials from area studies.

For patrons with disabilities, the room offers on-demand paging services. The patron provides a full bibliographic citation and a staff member goes into the stacks to retrieve the desired books. Last year the Phillips Reading Room updated its policy so that there is no longer a daily limit to the number of books staff will page. The staff likewise offers paging services for patrons with children in tow, since children cannot enter the stacks.

Last, but from far least, are the visiting researchers for whom the Phillips Reading Room is the most common Widener destination. "Most visiting researchers don’t get stacks pass privileges, so their primary point of access to the collection is through us," says Bruno. "We page materials for them from both the stacks and HD. We also serve as the chief go-between for visiting researchers and area studies."

The same goes for newspapers. Visiting researchers access hard copy newspapers in HD through the reading room already, but its staff members also commonly order microfilmed newspapers on behalf of visiting researchers through the Newspaper Microfilm Reading Room, in an effort to make the ordering process seamless.

Visiting researchers also tend to keep the Phillips Reading Room busy year-round, because things don’t slow down in summer. "That’s when you get visiting researchers on long-term projects," says Bruno. And there’s work involved long before the visiting researcher ever arrives on campus—since they so often come from afar, the reading room usually has to coordinate ahead of time, both with the researcher and the Privileges Office.

"It’s a simple job on the surface," says Bruno modestly, "but full of variations. We have all these different kinds of materials, from different places, with different rules on use and on how to return them to their respective divisions," he says. "And then on top of that we have all these different kinds of patrons, with different privileges, as well."

On average, the staff in the Phillips Reading Room page an average of 1,500 items a month for Harvard affiliates and another 650 items for visiting researchers. Even still, working with the latter is by far the more labor intensive, partly because so many visiting researchers can only get at the collections with their assistance, and partly because they often assume the Phillips Reading Room is the only one they’re allowed to use.

"They’re often afraid to leave the room for information inquires," says Bruno. "We try to send them to the Information Desk, and we make sure that our work-study students know that visiting researchers can go to other rooms and take advantage of reference librarians. But, for whatever reason, they like to stay in Phillips."

Ultimately, the reading room staff answer a great many basic informational inquires and occasionally aid patrons with bibliographic instruction. Whenever appropriate, says Bruno, they redirect the patron, but at the same time they try to be conscientious about not simply passing them off, knowing that they themselves might be the researcher’s third or fourth stop already.

Preservation Issues
Because so many materials coming through the Phillips Reading Room qualify as old and rare, staff members constantly keep watch for damaged books and manuscripts. According to Bruno, the Phillips Reading Room boasts a particularly self-selecting group of users who understand that they’re working in a rare book environment and, as a rule, they treat materials conscientiously. Still, for the staff, the issue of preservation is never far from mind.

"Quite often when items come here from HD," says Bruno, "it may be the first time they’ve been seen since they were transferred from NEDL or sent to HD in the first place. The staff takes time to evaluate and flag items to send to Preservation. Preservation has grown to rely on our staff to be their eyes and ears. They’ve trained us well, and we work closely with them to reroute materials to their attention."

The reading room staff flags an average of 518 items a month, and about 34% of the items they handle end up going to Preservation. "We tend to actually be stricter than Preservation—they want to be sure you get the information you need before they start work on the book."

Patrons also frequent the Phillips Reading Room for its state-of-the-art overhead digital scanner, which allows materials to be scanned from above without putting pressure on fragile pages and spines. The upshot is that only rarely now do reading room staff members have to send materials to Imaging Services. "It’s an overwhelming hit with patrons because they want things digitally, but also with our Preservation department because it means less wear and tear on the materials," says Bruno. "There’s usually a line of patrons waiting to use it."

"A New Function"
Bruno has been working with Thomas Bahr, Assistant to the Head of the Circulation Division, toward increased coordination with Circulation’s policies and procedures. This helps ensure that users don’t receive different answers from the Circulation desk and the Phillips Reading Room desk. This is especially important because the latter has a small staff that, although rounded out by nine student workers, often receives staffing assistance from the Circulation desk.

"Working closely with Circulation helps us streamline our own policies. It also helps us work out department standards in regards to what we send to Preservation," adds Bruno.

In the six years since the Phillips Reading Room opened, it has gradually evolved. For one, the room has lost its rare book atmosphere. In contrast to the original gated reading room, it now allows anyone who uses the room, ID or no, to place materials—whether or not they’re from HD—that they’re working with on hold in the room for up to 10 days. "Some people are really attracted to working in Phillips because it allows them to keep materials handy," says Bruno.

And the room is still evolving, especially as the Phillips Reading Room staff members work more closely with Circulation. "We’re a new function in a lot of regards," says Bruno, "so we’ve been gradually finding our place—as sort of a medium-rare book room."