We're moving!

Our new website is coming on June 28, 2018.
Preview the site now

You can also continue to the old site.

Harvard College Library News: News from around the libraries

At the Midterm the System Gets an “A”

public spaces recycling  

Houghton Curatorial Assistant Mary Haegert helps patron Miranda Peters submit a request for materials using the library's new special collections request system.


February 22, 2011 – Last fall, a new special collections request system was introduced to Harvard College Library with lofty goals and the promise of creating a better experience for both users and libraries.  With implementation complete in three of the six scheduled libraries, the word from both researchers and staff is “so far, so good.”

Students in a graduate seminar taught last semester by Charles Lea Professor of History Ann Blair and Professor of English Leah Price used the system to request books, and Blair said it “maximized flexibility for our students, and simplified things for us.”

“It is very convenient to be able to order books ahead and track what one has on hold,” Blair said. “I like the way one can now order books from both HOLLIS Classic and the new HOLLIS, and I am grateful for the attention devoted to improving the new system based on user feedback.”

Related Links


  • Facebook
  • Twitter

Karl Guthke, the Kuno Francke Research Professor of German Art and Culture, echoed Blair’s comments.

“It has worked quite well for me,” Guthke said, of the system. “It is very convenient, now that you can order a book from Houghton just as you can order a book from the Harvard Depository. The materials I request are usually ready in as little as 10 minutes, or the next day, if the book isn’t in the building.”

How it works
The Special Collections Request system allows patrons to register and place requests for materials online directly from the HOLLIS record or from a personal account page. This system replaces paper registration and request forms and, when implemented HCL-wide, will eliminate the need for patrons to register separately for use of each special collection.

Upon registering, an individual account is created. With that account a patron can:

  • submit requests through a form or submit requests via links in the catalog record
  • submit requests in advance of a visit to a library or while at the library
  • track the status of each request
  • access detailed information about past requests

All patrons, regardless of affiliation, are required to register before requesting special collections materials via a Special Collections Request account. This includes patrons who have registered before at one of the holding libraries.

Patrons who are not currently affiliated with Harvard University or who do not hold a Special Borrower card need to visit the Library Privileges Office at Widener Library (Hours, Directions) and present a government-issued, photo ID that includes their date of birth to obtain a Harvard College Library Special Collections Card.

Patrons with a Harvard ID or an HCL Special Borrower Card do not need to obtain an HCL Special Collections Card.

While the “front end” of the system provides users with more convenience and a consistent experience across libraries, the “back end” provides the libraries not only with the convenience of Web-based registration, but is even more useful, with a higher level of knowledge and control of collections. 

 “We wish it were not the case, but we do have to take precautions to protect our collections.  The new registration system has reinforced security by allowing us to verify the identity of patrons using special collections and to keep track of the materials in use,” said Paul Bellenoit, Director for Operations and Security for HCL.

In addition to enhancing security the system efficiently reports on the current location of materials off the shelf and collects more accurate bibliographic information so that it is easier for staff to confirm the availability of materials for patrons.  Standardized statistics collection built into the system provides libraries with information to track the usage of collections and gain a better understanding of the patterns of special collections patrons.  Usage data also informs planning around functions like cataloging, digitization, collection development, conservation, and materials storage.

“We have always said that curators’ decisions should be informed by use, but until this system was implemented, it was very difficult to capture that data,” said Rachel Howarth, Houghton Associate Librarian for Public Services. “Now, if a curator wants to know who is using certain collections, they can find out almost immediately. Having access to that data allows them to more easily make decisions about which items should be prioritized for digitization, which items may need to be restricted because they are being used often, and about which items should be on- and off-site.”

The ease with which librarians can confirm the availability of materials has also improved the interaction between librarians and patrons, said Bonnie Burns, Librarian for Geographic Information Services at the Harvard Map Collection.

“It allows us to open a dialog with our patrons in a way we weren’t able to before. The items patrons typically request from the Map Collection represent only a small portion of our collection, and many may be unavailable because they are undergoing preservation or digitization. When we see someone has requested one of those items, we are able to contact the patron, tell them the item is unavailable, and suggest other items, including those that may not have been cataloged yet. So the system gives us a chance to introduce patrons to materials they would not have otherwise found,” said Burns.

The Challenge
Special collections are rare or otherwise valuable materials, including books, manuscripts, archival collections, photographs, and maps, that are kept in closed stacks and receive special curatorial treatment. Throughout time, making them accessible, tracking their use and ensuring their security in a decentralized set of libraries with large disparate collections has posed tremendous challenges. 

Efforts to meet those challenges began years ago with a customized patron database developed by HCL Information Technology Services (ITS) for Houghton Library.  A review of requests for extensive updates to the Houghton database led Associate Librarian Rebecca Graham and ITS to the conclusion it would be better to search for an existing technology that could replace it and be more easily used across libraries. At the same time, Associate Librarian Marilyn Wood learned of a special collections system being developed by the vendor that created the system that supports HCL’s Interlibrary Loan.

“It was very serendipitous,” Wood said. “I was aware that discussions were taking place about replacing the patron database at Houghton, and when I learned more about the system that was being developed, I realized it could meet our needs.”

With a possible solution identified, a small group made up of Graham, Wood, and staff from Houghton Library and ITS began working in collaboration with the vendor to identify the library’s needs and the benefits of moving to a new system and to sketch out a timeline for when the system could be implemented at HCL. The Office for Information Systems was also included in early discussions, because the special request system would require access to HOLLIS records.

“Through a series of informal meetings, we demonstrated to Houghton staff that they would be much better off with an off-the-shelf system whose development they could influence going forward,” Graham said. “This system improves the user experience, gives us a security mechanism if we ever have a situation where something is lost or missing, allows for more efficient staff workflows, and provides improved data collection.”

And because the system provides a common user experience across libraries for patrons, it has encouraged them to make use of collections they may not have used in the past, Wood said.

“We are seeing patron who have only used Houghton reaching out and using materials at Fine Arts,” she said. “One of our goals was to expose these collections more broadly, and this system makes that possible.”

With goals established and the technology identified, Sue Kreigsman, now with the Office of Scholarly Communication, did some early analysis for the project, but project manager Marilyn Rackley, who joined HCL in January 2010, was responsible for the lion’s share of the work, shepherding the project through the complex process of migrating data into the new system, overseeing implementation in each library, and training staff.

“We believed we could maximize the benefits of the system by adopting a standard approach in all libraries, but we were surprised to discover how the procedures for managing access to special collections varied among the libraries more than we expected,” said Rackley.

Staff from all the participating libraries - Houghton, Harvard Map Collection, Fine Arts, Loeb Music, Harvard-Yenching, Tozzer and Cabot - were involved in project planning.  After months of rigorous work, Rackley was able to define a centralized patron registration process, standardized forms and templates to be used by all libraries, and a standard approach to tracking materials that will yield consistent data across libraries.  

Working from the template provided by the vendor, Rackley customized the Web interface for the system. With HCL Communications, she established a detailed, customizable communications plan for roll-out at each of the libraries, and created a section on the HCL web site for users with an easy-to-follow picture tutorial on how to register and place requests. 

Implementation work for each library begins a few months in advance of the go-live date. The time is spent preparing the library’s catalog records, in collaboration with the Office for Information Systems, to make them accessible to the system. At Houghton, for example, over 300,000 item records were created in order to make Houghton’s materials “requestable.” 

In addition, the two-month implementation includes posting patron communications, adapting procedures to the library’s environment as necessary and training staff. 

The implementation timeline was determined based on an analysis of need for and utility of the system at each library, as well as discussions with the libraries about which times of the year would be the best for them to introduce a new procedure.  

Houghton was first, going live near the end of September.  The Harvard Map Collection followed in November, and Fine Arts Library launched in January.

With three libraries on the system, more than 1,500 users have registered and more than 1,000 have used it to submit more than 6,500 requests for library materials. The library Privileges Office has issued more than 400 special collections cards to non-Harvard patrons. The system has been used to track materials for more than 100 classes that used special collections and for nine digitization projects. 

Today, the system went live in Loeb Music Library, where it will be used to request materials primarily stored in the Merritt Music Room.  Harvard-Yenching Library is slated for go-live in April and then Tozzer in May. 

“We are learning a great deal from each implementation and then applying that knowledge to the next launch. Those libraries at the end of the schedule will be lucky enough to benefit from that additional experience,” said Rackley. 

The system’s benefits aren’t limited only to HCL libraries. Graham and Wood were careful to negotiate Harvard-wide use as part of the vendor agreement so that other libraries could avail themselves of the system.