In Library, New Chapter for Bookish Prof

Princeton book scholar will face new administrative challenges as Library director

Sidney Verba ’53 has joked that prior to becoming Harvard’s chief librarian, he thought of libraries like he thought of supermarkets—he knew he needed what was on the shelves but had no idea how it got there. The same cannot be said of his successor, Robert C. Darnton ’60, whose prior expertise in the study of books field is a rare asset for a professor starting his term as director of the University Library.

With volumes including “The Literary Underground of the Old Regime” and “The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France” to his name, Darnton brings strong academic assets to the position and recognition around the library world. But arriving this summer as a Harvard outsider, Darnton—after 40 years of teaching history at Princeton—will also face the challenge of managing money and politics across the more than 90 libraries of Harvard’s 10 faculties.

In contrast to Darnton, Verba had more than a decade’s experience at Harvard when he became library director in 1984, fresh off a stint as associate dean of undergraduate education. Before and since, Verba has chaired a litany of committees on sensitive Faculty and University issues—including the faculty advisory committee for this year’s presidential search and groups dealing with Core Curriculum reform, calendar reform, and diversity faculty hiring.

Darnton, meanwhile, assumes the post with less administrative experience and less inside knowledge of Harvard than Verba had 23 years ago. Until now, the top administrative position Darnton has held according to his C.V. is an eight-year tenure as director of the Program in European Cultural Studies at Princeton.

Darnton now heads Princeton’s Center for the Study of Books and Media. It is Darnton’s only current administrative post, and according to student manager Jeff Schwegman, the center’s staff consists of Schwegman and a financial staffer.

Yet Darnton’s connections in the library world and his prominence as a proponent of online media promise to be a boon for Harvard. Darnton is a trustee of the New York Public Library and the Oxford University Press, and he drew the presidents of the Bibliothèque Nationale of France, the New York Public Library, and the head of Oxford University’s library to a conference at Princeton last fall about “the Research Library in the New Information Age.”

“He’s very well connected to both librarians and scholars around the world,” said Karin Trainer, Princeton’s University Librarian.

In addition, Darnton has been a leading advocate electronic publishing of academic work.

“He was also an early proponent of using digital means to publish works of scholarship, particularly in history,” Trainer said. “He has taken an intelligent approach to thinking the ways that digital technology could add to the convention of publishing in history.”

An awareness of the ever-expanding intersection between technology and research will be important for Harvard’s libraries, which have undertaken on a number of digitization projects under Verba’s leadership. Carrying on those efforts is one of many administrative challenges Darnton will face as he navigates the complicated waters of Harvard’s library structure.

A ‘DIPLOMATIC JOB’

Having a senior professor serve as chief librarian is a Harvard peculiarity, as many institutions, including Princeton, employ a professional librarian instead to oversee their collections.

At Harvard, the position Darnton will take over July 1 carries with it significant prestige but not an automatic mandate. The director of the University Library is only the first among equals in a relatively decentralized library system, and Darnton will have to work hard to seek consensus.

Although the HUL director is nominally the chief steward of Harvard’s collections, he does not directly exercise budgetary authority over individual libraries but plays a coordinating role between them. While the University Library is a department of the central administration, each of the University’s 10 faculties funds its own library independent of the center.

In the past, Verba has often made a tongue-in-cheek comparison of Harvard’s structure to that of the Soviet Union, noting that it “ought to be equally ungovernable.” He draws an analogy between Soviet republics and Harvard’s different “tubs”, each of differing sizes and resources—the Faculty of Arts and Sciences being like Russia, the largest, with other faculties like Law and Business akin to the likes of Kazakhstan and the Ukraine.

This unequal balance of power across the University is reflected in Harvard’s library system. Verba himself is hard pressed to describe the process of building consensus on the University Library Council, the group of librarians heading the different faculty libraries.

Verba emphasized the consensus-building nature of his position, adding that the heads of the different libraries often agree to disagree. In meetings, Verba says he will say “I guess we all agree” despite knowing the opposite to be true. “Some people will nod yes while grimacing.”

But Verba defends the libraries’ current structure. “We’ve built a group of people who get along and trust each other,” Verba said. “It works as well as an institution like that could work.”

Darnton says he understands that his post is a “diplomatic job,” much as Verba has described it in the past. He will need to do an effective job of convincing the individual faculty libraries that the collective interest and individual interests overlap.

“It’s important to make clear to all the schools at Harvard the central role of the library,” Darnton said in an interview this week.

As information technology becomes more important for libraries, Darnton will have to deploy tech savvy in addition to his erudition. And in order to enact meaningful change as HUL director, he will need to display deft diplomatic skills as well. The challenge of uniting the Harvard libraries he faces is an administrative as much as a bibliographic one.

—Laurence H. M. Holland contributed to the reporting of this story.

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