Are Harvard's Realignment Throes Unique-Or a Cautionary Tale?

By Goldberg, Beverly | American Libraries, May-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Are Harvard's Realignment Throes Unique-Or a Cautionary Tale?


Goldberg, Beverly, American Libraries


Harvard University Library (HUL) is poised to launch a massive reconfiguration of its services in July. New reporting structures usually trigger anxiety i n 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." (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."

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In January, HU L 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 at least 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 work-force, 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).

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. …

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