The Management of 120 Miles of Books
A Scholar Replaces a Professional But Traditional Problems Remain in
When President Pusey announced the appointment of a new University Librarian last October, the news met with a rash of unsubstantiated rumors about faculty politics and personalities. Yet behind the rumors lay a largely undebated question: What effect will the appointment of Paul H. Buck to succeed Keyes D. Metcalf have on library and educational policy?
The change in librarians is certainly more than a new face behind a desk in America's oldest university library, more than a matter of the new Presiden's efforts to win the confidence of the faculty. It will affect each of the library's 15,000 regular users, and each of the 5,800,000 volumes which make it America's largest University library.
The library is an 87-unit administrative problem, spending $2,400,000 a year, employing 342 people, and its head is thus one of the key administrators in the university bureaucracy. But his job is not merely organizational. The librarian controls what the Overseers have called "perhaps our most important tool in educating," in a university which the president has described as "almost built upon books." From his administrative office, the librarian can, if he wishes, play a larger role in defining the Harvard education than any other man at the University.
A Permanent Effect
His role is magnified by its long-term importance. The scholarly work of every educator and every professor is ultimately consigned to the librarian. By determining how this material will be assembled and made available to the public, the librarian has a permanent effect upon the course of scholarship.
The appointment of Buck, the scholar, will serve to reemphasize the educational and scholarly aspects of this triple office, of administrator, educator, and scholar, in a way which was never contemplated by Metcalf, the professional librarian.
Buck comes to his position with unquestioned qualifications. He has twice served as acting president, once when President Conant was working on the Manhattan Project, and once when the Corporation was choosing a successor to the newly-appointed High Commissioner of Germany. He is known privately as the man who resigned to give the new president a free hand, the last man to fill the powerful office of Provost. A popular professor who gives a course in the history of the South, he is also a gifted administrator to whom President Pusey offered a position at the first possible opportunity.
Back in the Good Old Days
Metcalf is a different man of a different background. Called from the New York Public Library in 1937, he was the first University librarian without a Harvard degree. Retiring at 66 as one of America's leading professional librarians, he resembles a business executive more than a University official.
He sees the library in terms of 120 miles of shelving, filling 12,000,000 cubic feet, the fourth largest college collection in the world. "We don't deal in personalities, just books and services," he says, perhaps thinking of his 18-year effort to win the confidence of the faculty he serves.
He admits that relations are sometimes strained, because, "faculties tend to look askance at administrators of all kinds, wishing for the time when the university's wheels will go round automatically, as we like to think they did long ago, in the days which deans were less numerous and administrative offices took less space."
To Anticipate or Make Trouble?
The conflict is not based purely on prejudice, he admits, for "faculties are conservative bodies, and tend to oppose change so long as things appear to be going satisfactorily," while he sees himself as an administrator, whose job is to "anticipate trouble."
As a result, some of the faculty conceive him to be an administrative radical seeking unnecessary changes, which they almost believe are designed solely to disconcert the faculty.
In appointing Buck, President Pusey has not removed the conflict between faculty and administration, but he has removed some of the prejudices. The faculty has always expected the librarian to be a scholar, an educator, an historian, for the librarian is in a sense the only man who controls the scholar's work.
Two explanations of the reversion to what President Pusey calls the "tradition of scholar-librarians" are apparent. The new President has taken an important step in winning his faculty by returning the library to a professor. More important, the appointment shows the Metcalf has brought library administration to the point where the University is able to dispense with professional direction.
Traditionally, the librarianship is the office of a scholar. Administrators are his assistants, but administration is meticulously subordinated to the library as an instrument of scholarship and education. When administrative complications threatened the usefulness of the library, the solution has been to get more money, build new buildings, hire a large staff.
Only twice has this approach been modified: in 1877 when Justin Winsor was called from the Boston Public Library, and in 1937 when Metcalf came from New York. In both cases the problem was simple: the library was doubling in size every twenty years, and funds to administer this collection were not available. In both cases the professionals found ways of containing library growth within the financial limits imposed by the University, and preventing a decline of the library's position in the University.
While the faculty often forgets the value of this administrative work, without it the University would not have the finest research library in America today.
More Books, Less Money
Metcalf's greatness as a librarian lies in his willingness to go beyond the academic tradition, placing his knowledge of library techniques at the disposal of the scholars. He is the first to admit that no administrative solution can be permanent, and that Buck will face the same problems he has faced. But if the durability of Winsor's work is a guide, Metcalf has laid the foundations of library administrative development for many years to come.
The aim of Metcalf's work is simple: make more and more books available to the University on proportionally less and less money. Every year the purchasing less and less money. Every year the purchasing power of the endowment has decreased, and every years more books are published. How a University library can keep pace with the ever growing volumes of literature is every librarian's ultimate problem.
The difficulty is accentuated by the nature of libraries. A University can graduate students, retire professors, and tear down outdated buildings. The library on the other hand must find more and more elaborate means for preserving books as they grow older and older.
In an era when private individuals like Mrs. George D. Widener could give money for buildings, books, and endowments, the librarian had a convenient escape from these problems. But only foundations can contemplate such gifts today, and the scholar must find administrative assistance if he is to maintain his collection.
Metcalf's solutions to the problem of growth have been diverse, but to a large degree successful. Today, the staff is under paid, the catalogues are inadequate, reader service has been cut to the bare minimum, and acquisition funds are not sufficient to keep many collections up to date, but the scholar can obtain a larger percentage of the world's books than he did when Metcalf arrived.
Lost in the Catalogue
As a result of administrative economics, the library has, to a large degree, kept working collections in those fields which the University emphasizes. But Metcalf explains that this has been done by cutting into other fields of service, and that Buck will still have to decide in what way the library should be inadequate.
Such choices are not easy. The staff is under paid in a university accustomed to offering the highest salaries in its field. Not only does this disturb the librarian, but the continual effort to keep a capable staff is handicapped when some universities have a median salary $1000 a year higher than Harvard's.
In the field of reader service, Metcalf argues that the inadequacies are partially product of educational philosophy ("We try to put the reader on the right track, not find the answer."). But he admits that economic pressures are pushing service below the acceptable level.
The catalogue is another large administrative expense, which occupies more librarians than any other single item. But the catalogue has already been simplified more than in any other large library, too far, the overseers claim. Buck will be under pressure to expand rather than contract this department.
In the late '40s, Metcalf proposed a scheme for cutting cataloguing costs by combining the union catalogue which lists the holdings of the University by author, and the public catalogue (which lists the Widener collection by subject, title and author). The faculty objected and he abandoned the plan.
Half a century ago, Ernest Richardson of Princeton suggested another solution to the cataloguing problem. With super simplified "title-a-line," cataloguing, costs would be cut in half, and the catalogue would readily locate 95 percent of the library's books. Although the additional funds made available for books would more than offset the five percent of the library "lost," such inefficiency does not appeal to the administrator indeed, the overseers claim the catalogue is already oversimplified.
In all three of these fields it seems likely that expenses will rise rather than decline. All indications are for a smaller proportion of the budget going to books as the size of the library increases. Thus the need for more and more economical ways of making books available will increase rather than diminish. It is here that Metcalf has done his most significant work. By placing the catalogues of the world's great libraries in Widner, and refining the interlibrary loan, Metcalf has made almost any book in the world available to the patron of the University library.
A refinement of the cooperative expansion in the Farmington Plan, under which most of America's great libraries buy only one copy of every book published abroad. This volume is placed in the library assuming responsibility for the field, and is available by loan or photostat to cooperating libraries.
How Long for Widener?
Regardless of whether Buck refines interlibrary cooperation to reduce the number of books needed annually, or finds money with which to swell the current acquisition, he will have to find space in which to store them. Metcalf has cut the rate of growth from a four percent annually to a constant 125,000 volumes each year, but even these fill almost three miles of new shelving.
One solution to the space problem is departmental growth. Departmental libraries grew up under Winsor when Gore Hall was overcrowded. Today, they exceed the main collection in size, and include 60 percent of today's acquisitions.
Although it will make his job of coordination more difficult, Buck will probably follow this suburban approach, encouraging decentralization, but combining small' overlapping collections. Widener must, still find space in the stacks, however, for 20,000 new books each year. At this rate it will be full by 1975. With the removal of the University Archives and departmental collections, it can perhaps last until 1990.
Long-term planning has always failed in the past. Gore Hall was supposed to last for sixty years, and was full in twenty. Widener was to house the central collection for fifty years, and was full in 25. Today's planning is perhaps more realistic and Metcalf has held down acquisitions for 18 years. One of Buck's problems will be to continue this effort. Metcalf has devised a four way censure to crowding the central collection. When he arrived in 1937, there was room for three years growth. Since then he has realized an undergraduate library, a rare book library, a storehouse for little-used books, and the construction of underground stack space.
The underground stack could eventually fill the entire South-eastern corner of the Yard, housing 2,000,000 volumes. In 1949 the first such structures was finished beneath Lamont, with a 500,000 volume capacity.
The New England Library is Metcalf's invention for storing little used books belonging to 11 Boston area libraries. A building behind the Business School holds 250,000 volumes belonging to the University, and an equal number from other libraries. This frees space for 450,000 volumes in the Widener stack.
A Mammoth Pool
One suggestion for extension of the principle is the Northeastern Regional Library. With the cooperation of Ivy Universities, MIT, and New York Public Library a program similar to the Deposit library could effect vast economies both by eliminating duplication and providing cheap storage for large sections of University collections.
If Buck can push through such a program, large parts of the University collection could go to this cooperative book bank for permanent housing and become available in a single building to interested scholars. The plan could win support not only from the cooperating universities, but from benefactors throughout the country, and from the foundations.
There are also the more general questions, the implications of which extend beyond administration. Whom is the library serving, how should it allot this service, how should it increase its own importance?
What of visiting scholars? "We don't want to handicap scholarship," Metcalf has maintained, "but the University is not in a position to operate a free public library." Yet the Yale PhD. candidate can use Widner for nothing. While the Harvard graduate student must pay $200 for almost identical privileges.
Will There Still Be Books?
Most important, which fields of study will the University emphasize? Acquisition funds are currently $60,000 short of what is needed to keep existing collections up to date. Buck will have to decide which fields to slight, which fields to leave these problems largely to the University. He merely attempted to give the University the service it wanted as it wanted it. Buck will come to his office with convictions on these problem, for he has been an educator and a scholar rather than a public servant. In this area, he may indeed find that real conflict replaces the prejudices which hampered Metcalf.
Prediction is difficult, but at present the library appears faced with two possibilities. Either the changing economic climate will make possible acquisitions, services and construction possible today, or the library will move towards interlibrary cooperation, abandoning its traditional independence.
Perhaps Buck's retirement will see a library characterized by catalogues of all the world's books, streamlined interlibrary loans, and a Northeastern regional library comparable to the Library of Congress. On the other hand, photostating, microfilming, recording, and IBM cataloguing may have outdated the existing conception of a library. "Perhaps" Metcalf suggests, "we won't even have books in forty years."
Yet no matter what technical changes or administrative developments take place under Buck, he will still face the problem which Justin Winsor formulated 80 years ago, "How, on limited funds, to give as many people as possible as many books as possible with as little trouble as possible.