Harvard and MIT share books

Harvard University may be the oldest member of the Ivy League, but it was the last to join the Ancient Eight’s communal library system.

Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced Monday that they would join Borrow Direct, a system that allows students and faculty from each Ivy League school to search for and take out books from the other schools’ libraries. Yale helped create the system, which pioneered in its current form in 2002. MIT’s induction will mark the first time a non-Ivy is included. Peter Kosewski, manager for publications and communication of Harvard University Library, said he hopes Harvard will integrate into the Borrow Direct system this summer.

“Each of the libraries in Borrow Direct has very specific collection strengths,” Kosewski said. “I think it’s an opportunity for all of the academic communities to collaborate. Imagine having access to 50 million volumes.”

Harvard has been interested in joining Borrow Direct for several years, Kosewski said, but was not “organizationally and technologically able” to do so until now. While Harvard always had an open invitation to be part of Borrow Direct, the university did not previously have one central authority who could speak for its massive, fractured library system, Associate University Librarian Kendall Crilly MUS ’86 GRD ’92 said.

He added that Harvard is in the midst of centralizing its libraries. Harvard’s Report of the Task Force on University Libraries from Nov. 2009 outlined some of the structural and financial difficulties which discouraged Harvard from joining Borrow Direct sooner, said Peter Collins, assistant project manager with Borrow Direct. Collins added that it is not expensive to join Borrow Direct, but that because Harvard’s libraries charge each other internal fees, it would have been costly for them to release materials to other schools. According to the report, it costs Harvard $2.15 to release a book to other libraries.

Crilly said he had been told that Harvard was concerned it could not “guarantee that the whole library would be part of [Borrow Direct]” under its old structure, and therefore did not want to participate. Now, he added, some faculty are worried that “the books are all going to be gone from the library on Borrow Direct.”

“It seems a little silly,” he said. “I think that there’s a sense that it’s really nice to have [all the] Ivies represented. It offers great opportunities for more materials for our students and faculty to use.”

A Harvard representative also said the university deferred joining because it uses a different cataloguing system than the other Ivies — it is on Aleph, while the majority of Borrow Direct universities, including Yale, use Voyager, and Brown and Dartmouth use III, Crilly said. Kosewski added that Harvard is working with Borrow Direct to make the catalogue system compatible, and Collins said he does not anticipate any problem using a third platform.

Collins said Harvard first mentioned that it was looking to join Borrow Direct at the American Library Conference last January.

“We’re all just happy to sort of complete the circle,” Collins said.

Borrow Direct was the brainchild of Yale, Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania. It began as a 1999 pilot project called CoPY, named for the three schools, and launched in its current form with seven members in 2002.

Collins said both Harvard and MIT were invited to join Borrow Direct back in 2002. He added that although MIT does not have as large a collection as most Ivy League schools, it has some “unique resources” in the technical fields. MIT and Harvard libraries, Collins said, have also been collaborating recently, so it made sense to bring them both in at the same time.

MIT Librarian Ann Colbert did not respond to requests for comment.

Crilly added that other non-Ivy League universities have expressed interest in joining Borrow Direct, but Crilly said he think this is unlikely. He added that those who run the system want to preserve the guarantee that books will arrive within four days, and therefore far-away schools, such as Stanford, will probably not be included.

Borrow Direct is useful when all of Yale’s copies of a book required for a class are out, or if a community member wants a book Yale does not have, Crilly said. For example, Yale does not have a school of agriculture, but Cornell does, and would be more likely to have material on farming. Crilly added that often Yale faculty members request late 19 and early 20 century books, as these older volumes are harder for any one University to acquire.

Borrow Direct circulates most, if not all, of the books normally available within a university and operates on a first-request-first-serve basis, not giving priority to students of a book’s home institution. Students can place book requests directly online, and keep them for six weeks with one possible renewal.

Borrow Direct circulated 142,000 requests among the seven schools last year, Collins said.

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