“It’s all about the books.”
Harvard College Library bids fond farewell to Director of Operations and Security Paul Bellenoit
October 31, 2013 — Paul Bellenoit knows libraries. In his 19 years since joining Harvard University he has worked on hundreds of projects, including a five-year renovation of Widener Library and the redesign of Lamont’s three reading rooms and café. He also led the 27% reduction of the libraries’ greenhouse gas emissions and has been involved in the packing, shipping, re-shelving and relocating of 15 million books for renovations, library decommissioning and donations. Though these projects differed greatly in scope and logistics, under Bellenoit’s watchful eye they had the same results: all on time and on budget. Bellenoit has kept meticulous records of the changes from project documents and photos to floor plans. These records are a collection in and of themselves — not as amazing as the ones Bellenoit has been charged with protecting, but a vital piece of the history of Harvard’s historic libraries.
In November, Bellenoit will leave Harvard and will run his own consulting business. We sat down with him for a retrospective.
Q: Can you give an overview of where the Harvard College Library is today and the projects you’ve overseen to help it get there?
Paul Bellenoit: The Widener renovation was a big one, but there were many others. The Widener renovation enhanced infrastructure and environmental controls to care for the collections and really brought the building back to where it should be. It transformed spaces back to their intended use such as the Periodicals and Atkins rooms, which had staff work stations in them, and then it created the new light court space including the Phillips and Stacks Reading Rooms.
The construction of 625 Mass Ave in ‘99-‘00 enabled us to relocate technical services staff from Widener so we could proceed with the project.
The Lamont reading rooms, all three of them, were renovated. Lamont Café was created from a reference reading room into a café in ‘06 – that was huge for the students. There were the renovations at Littauer and Sackler Museum for the Fine Arts Library and Media Slide Library which were relocated from The Fogg Art Museum. There was the downsizing and relocation of Tozzer Library into the William James building to allow the Tozzer building to be gutted and fully renovated. We renovated Archives in Pusey Library, Edison & Newman Room in Houghton Library and installed a complete fire detection and suppression system in Pusey Library. And there were many mechanical projects and behind the scenes work that took place including whole-new HVAC systems in Widener, Lamont and Houghton.
Security programs were big. Since I started here we’ve installed more than 140 security cameras and 195 card access readers to secure the collections. A lot of the projects I did have since been either re-renovated or eliminated– we renovated the entire Hilles Library back in ’02-’03 but since then Hilles Library is no more and we boxed, shipped, and donated the 160,000 volumes to a university in China and decommissioned the library. It’s a student space now.
Q: Your projects are known for being on time and on budget. What’s your secret to success?
PB: I never missed a schedule in 19 years – not to a day. Get the right people on the team, set the schedule and follow the schedule. If you miss a schedule people will not believe you the next time you make one – that’s my opinion.
Widener was a five-year project and I worked with the FAS Project Manager and the project design team on that. We moved every person in the building two times, sometimes three. Staff would go home on Friday and they’d come back Monday. Wherever they were, they’d be in a new place and there’d be colored feet on the floor. We’d tell them, “follow the green feet and you’ll know where you’re going.”
We moved every book twice and cleaned 52 miles of stack shelving.
Between the architects, the project manager, myself and the library administration we had a great project management team.
I believe in seeing a project before you do one. I’ve traveled around the country and overseas looking at projects similar to our project to find out what they did wrong. Not “what did you do right?” but “what did you do wrong?”
Q: What are some of the most interesting collections you’ve seen along the way?
PB: Well, I always treat them the same. Whether it’s The Cat in the Hat or Moby Dick I always treat all collections the same.
Q: A recent flooding incident in the Loeb Music Library was a reminder of the fragility of library materials. What efforts have you put in place to prepare for the inevitable broken pipe, leaky window or other emergency?
We had an emergency in the stacks back in 1998. Water seeped in from the ground and we didn’t have any pumps. So after we cleaned that up, I decided we needed an emergency supply room. We stocked an emergency supply room in Widener with pumps and hoses and boots and whatever we’d need and we’ve elaborated on it over the years.
But then we had the Pusey flood of 2008. It was a massive flood in the middle of the night in Houghton’s theatre collection. A root had gotten inside an underground drain pipe and clogged it: 500 gallons of water came through and poured into the library and came down on large metal file drawers. A lot of theatre backdrops were on top of those cabinets and theatre art was inside the drawers. Afterwards everything was wet and ink was rolling and preservation spent years taking care of this material and was able to preserve a lot of it.
So since then I invented a waterproof top that was pitched just for these cabinets. This eliminated staff from storing items on top of the cabinets and, if there was ever another leak, the water would not enter the cabinet and ruin the collections. We have those in a few places like where the rare collections are stored waiting to be digitized.
That night we had to run looking for this and that so I had the idea to put rolling, small red carts in every library. Almost like a code cart in hospitals for emergencies. Inside those carts there’s a case of water, cameras, scissors, tape, latex gloves and the basic supplies you need when you’re working in an area like this and we purchased narrow tables to put in the stacks so you can put collections up on them to dry them. We have tables, fans, dehumidifiers and we use them anytime there’s a flood.
Q: After spending nearly 20 years in libraries, how have you seen the concept of the library change?
PB: The concept has changed drastically. Libraries now are more a center for students. Look at Lamont: 3,000 plus people a day come in and out in the 24 hours it's open. The libraries are like a meeting place for students rather than come in to get a book and go back to your dorm. They’d rather hang out in the library. It’s comfortable.
Q: What changes do you foresee for the Harvard College Library?
PB: I think different use of space and possibly the consolidation of some library collections and spaces. The new video capture studio in Widener is a perfect example. The mix of FAS and University programs within libraries and library buildings where as previously it was just libraries, basically, is the next step. With the collaborative learning spaces in Lamont that we built, we have the second collaborative learning space upstairs in the Larsen Room, and we have another one in Widener off Atkins in Room 240 – these are all good collaborative spaces that Research, Teaching and Learning will be using constantly. I think you’ll see more of those.
All three of those spaces I built in the last three years and all three of them are very different. The technology uses change within the spaces. So I think the use of space in the libraries will be different down the road. You’ll always have books but the spaces use will be very different.
Q: Did you ever think you’d come to know so much about libraries?
PB: No. I tell the librarians, “you take care of the books, I’ll take care of the shelves and buildings.”
Q: What will you miss most?
PB: The people. Really, the people. Buildings change. I’ve re-renovated some of the things I’ve renovated years ago. We’ve eliminated libraries that I renovated. So, it’s the people I will miss the most.