Are Harvard’s Realignment Throes Unique—or a Cautionary Tale?
The Widener Library is the largest of Harvard’s 73 libraries.
Harvard University Library (HUL) is poised to launch a massive reconfiguration of its services in July. Reorganizations usually trigger anxiety in any work setting, so the mandated realignment of 73 libraries into streamlined reporting structures and shared services was bound to create a stir. Despite a series of communications from Harvard officials since January, campuswide worries about the fate of the library system and its staff have not eased.
More than two years on the drawing board, the reorganization plan stems from a 2009 Library Task Force report that recommended reforms to strengthen HUL so it could “move forward effectively in the face of technological change and financial challenge.” The report noted that “even during the recent years of endowment growth, the libraries struggled to collect the books, journals, and other research materials desired by current faculty and students.” (According to the June 26, 2011 US News & World Report, Harvard’s $26 billion endowment in 2009 topped all private college and university endowments.)
To implement these changes, the report emphasized a path that many libraries have taken in recent years—access to materials over ownership: “Harvard libraries can no longer harbor delusions of being a completely comprehensive collection, but instead must develop their holdings more strategically.” It also recommends centralizing library policies such as collection development and borrowing guidelines, and states that “strategic investments in human capital must be made to achieve these objectives and reforms.”
In January, HUL Executive Director Helen Shenton gathered library employees at a town hall meeting to say, in part, that the reorganization would require fewer workers and that the administration would pursue “a range of options—some voluntary, some involuntary” to reduce staffing. Several weeks later, 280 library staffers—all 55 or older and with 10 years’ service—received early retirement offers, with the stipulation that they accept by April 2. Library officials announced May 9 that 63 people, or 23% of those eligible, were taking early retirement; if all 280 had participated, HUL would have shed approximately one-third of its 930-member workforce, which has already been reduced from roughly 1,300 since 2003.
“Harvard’s intention for the early retirement program was twofold: to help facilitate the library transition while providing eligible staff with the choice of an enhanced early retirement option,” HUL Director of Communications Kira Poplowski told American Libraries, noting that library officials are continuing to meet with librarians, faculty, and administrators campuswide “to assess the needs of the new library organization.”
Emphasizing the goal of universitywide collaboration, Harvard Provost Alan M. Garber said in an open letter February 10, “The new Library will harness both the power of a unified Harvard and the distinctive contributions of the Schools, which will retain responsibility for work that requires deep knowledge of research, teaching, and learning needs within their respective domains.”
The reconfiguration will cluster Harvard’s 73 libraries into five affinity groupings (Professional School Libraries, Physical and Life Science Libraries, Humanities and Social Sciences Libraries, Fine Arts Libraries, and Archives and Special Collections), supported by four Shared Services units (University Archives, Access Services, Technical Services, and Preservation, Conservation, and Digital Imaging Services).
Lisa Carper, cataloging assistant at Tozzer Library, is one of the few library staffers to speak out publicly. “We need all the steps taken toward forming the new Harvard Library to be done with the utmost knowledge and care by the people who have the most invested in the outcome and who have the expertise and experience to do it right,” she wrote February 16 in an open email addressed to the transition team. Carper also wrote that those most qualified “are terrified and uninformed about what is happening and threatened with losing their jobs.”
A March 19 email (PDF file) from the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) to members offered assurances that HUCTW would “present and discuss important themes that have arisen among the staff, in particular the fact that Harvard’s libraries are severely understaffed and that further staffing reductions pose threats to the integrity of the Library.”
Library workers have also received moral support from faculty and students, who have conducted protest marches and written op-eds in the student Harvard Crimson. Additionally, members of Occupy Harvard reached out to alumni donors, conducting a call-a-thon asking them to join the protest; in one posted email, retired English Professor A. Abbott Ikeler cautioned Harvard President Drew Faust, “To dismiss outright, rather than retain and if necessary retrain, numbers of long-serving, hard-working library employees strikes me as an exercise perhaps worthy of a jumped-up, for-profit organization—certainly not worthy of America’s foremost university.”
HUL’s Poplowski added that its “full roster of key library projects” also includes the April 24 release of more than 12 million catalog records, representing almost all of the 73 libraries’ metadata, in the hope that other institutions will follow suit, and an April 17 declaration by the Faculty Advisory Council advocating scholarly publication in open-access journals over increasingly high-priced traditional channels. Also sure to impact the library is the $60 million partnership announced May 2 between Harvard and MIT to offer MIT courses on edX, an open-source software platform to which anyone with an internet connection can log in for free.
Purse strings and paradigms
Harvard is certainly not alone in pursuing such an ambitious agenda—or in finding resistance to its plan.
Among the academic libraries undergoing a paradigm shift is the University of California at Berkeley. Tom Leonard, university librarian, was candid in an April 16 letter to the UCB campus about the trigger for his library system’s reorganization: “With the loss of public funding at Berkeley over the past four years, the Library has lost over 70 budgeted staff, equivalent to more than 20% of our budgeted positions. Assuming relatively stable future budgets, we still need to reduce our workforce over the next three years, via attrition, by approximately 20 FTE to meet budget goals.”
Leonard was conducting an online survey of campus members in May to determine which of two committee-formulated reconfiguration options is preferred, and stated that a decision would be made public in July, with a 1–3 year implementation scheduled to begin in the fall. According to the May 4 San Francisco Business Times, survey questions probed how patrons tend to use the library—as a quiet study location, as a repository of materials, or as the place to find librarians with subject expertise. The survey came several months after members of the Occupy movement held a study-in at UCB’s Doe and Anthropology libraries to demand longer library hours.
A December 2011 SPEC Kit from the Association of Research Libraries documents how a number of other North American universities have consolidated operations as institutional service philosophies—and financial realities—have changed. Reconfiguring Service Delivery (PDF file) also notes that the amount of patron input into such changes varies “because some of the reconfigurations were mandated by physical or financial situations beyond the control of the library.”
As the libraries of Harvard and UC Berkeley navigate academe’s shifting paradigms, new challenges are already looming. New York Times columnist David Brooks noted May 3 that Harvard and MIT’s edX online-course portal will join initiatives at Brigham Young and Stanford universities, which have already offered distance education to hundreds of thousands. The as-yet-unanswered question, of course, is how the movement toward a global networked campus will further transform academic libraries.
American Libraries, Thu, 05/10/2012 - 16:07