Library Searches for New Chief

Who will be the next director of the Harvard University Library?

An advisory committee is working to find a successor to Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba ’53, who will step down in June after 23 years at the post.

An open forum held yesterday afternoon exposed some of the workings of the search and the formidable task facing the committee.

Harvard’s new chief librarian will assume control of the world’s largest academic library, containing over 15.5 million physical volumes.

“Technically speaking, the only job the director of the University Library has...is to count the books and to tell the Harvard Corporation they’re all on the shelves,” Verba joked in an interview.

But the job requires considerably more attention than that. Verba’s successor must coordinate with librarians across Harvard’s many schools and departments as well as with the University’s central administration—what Verba describes as a “political job” that also combines management and scholarship.

Provost Steven E. Hyman, who moderated the discussion, compared the selection process to a “dean search,” adding that he and President-elect Drew G. Faust will choose the new director from a list of finalists.

‘BOOKS AND ELECTRONS’

In University Hall’s Faculty Room yesterday, members of Harvard’s top brass reflected on the appropriate qualities for Verba’s successor and the future of the position itself.

The influence of Harvard’s chief librarian is no longer confined to the printed page.

According to Hyman, the next director must be someone who “loves both books and electrons.”

In addition to its growing electronic resources, the University Library is also pursuing a number of other digital projects. These include the Open Collections Project, which makes targeted portions of Harvard’s holdings publicly available online, and the Google Books Library Project, which is scanning thousands of Harvard’s out-of-copyright books.

“You’ve got to have someone who’s comfortable with modern technology”, said Verba.

The library system faces challenges in both the electronic and physical realms, however.

The new director will have to maintain and preserve Harvard’s collections, the oldest in North America. Verba’s successor will also need to negotiate the library’s budgetary concerns as well as forge better links between the various individual libraries and streamline how they manage their holdings and acquisitions.

THE SEARCH IS ON

The advisory committee tasked with identifying candidates includes two librarians as well as ten other faculty members and administrators.

One member, Larsen Librarian of Harvard College Nancy M. Cline, said the committee has met several times since its formation earlier this academic year, although she declined to say whether the committee had compiled a list of candidates.

The new director will likely be a Harvard faculty member, Cline said.

“That’s part of the landscape of Harvard,” she said.

Verba, who is not on the committee, said that a good candidate for the job would have “real scholarly qualities.”

“Nobody understands all the fields that one collects for,” he said. “I don’t really understand what’s going on in comparative literature or in comparative physics...you have to have someone who really understands all the humanities at one end, and also the social sciences, and also have an understanding of science.”

READING THE TEA LEAVES

Whoever succeeds Verba, according to Faust, will need to be able to deal with unexpected challenges and “anticipate the kind of revolutions we’re likely to encounter in the next 20 years.”

Verba, who is a scholar of political science, has thrived while facing major paradigm shifts.

Appointed to lead the University Library in 1984 by then-President Derek C. Bok, he is the longest-serving chief librarian in Harvard’s history. During his tenure, the library created the online HOLLIS catalog, constructed the Harvard Depository to contain the overflowing collection, established a preservation program, and embarked on several major electronic projects.

More such “extensive change” is likely ahead, according to Cline.

“There is a hefty agenda,” she said.

—Staff writer David Jiang can reached at djiang@fas.harvard.edu.