Library System May See Changes

Harvard University’s “labyrinthine” library system should be drastically restructured in the next few years, according to the Task Force on University Libraries’ report released yesterday.

“Harvard libraries can no longer harbor delusions of being a completely comprehensive collection,” the report said in a sober assessment of the challenges facing the system.

In order to alleviate budgetary pressures, the report prescribes a series of solutions, among them the possibility of closing some of Harvard’s 73 libraries and reassessing the University’s ambitious, comprehensive collection strategy.

“No single institution can bear the burden of acquiring the entire world’s informational output,” the report says, acknowledging that Harvard’s previous strategy of a “single university” collection is unsustainable.

It recommends that the system—the largest at any university in the world—adopt a twenty-first century approach that focuses on greater collaboration with other institutions of higher learning and shift toward more digital purchases, rather than traditional print resources.

The report is the product of a year-long investigation initiated by the Provost’s office into a heavily decentralized system that has experienced escalating costs and a falling budget in recent years.

Library expenditures grew by 25 percent between 2004 and 2008, and the libraries experienced heavy budget cuts last year after both the University endowment and the dollar fell, leading the Harvard College Library—the largest unit within the system—to seek a $12 million cost reduction by 2010.

The Task Force was charged in the wake of budget concerns across the University, said Provost Steven E. Hyman. But he said yesterday that the goal of the task force is “not to wring money out of the libraries” but to put in place long-awaited reforms.

“The issues we addressed are fundamentally independent of the financial crisis and its impact on library and other budgets, in that we’d have needed to address them even if the economy and our endowment had been stable or growing last year and beyond,” said Andrew D. Gordon ‘75, a history professor and task force member. “That said, the crisis makes it all the more important to follow up on this report.”

Hyman said he hoped the subsequent implementation working group will achieve “substantial progress” within a year on some of the report’s core reforms, which include putting in place new models for library funding and governance.

In addition, the report stated that the library system—composed of 73 disparate entities and 1,200 full-time employees—currently lacks a common organizational structure, and individual libraries are responsible for managing acquisitions.

Many libraries use computer systems that are incompatible with other Harvard libraries and peer institutions, preventing collaboration both within and outside the university. Harvard is also the only Ivy League institution that does not participate in BorrowDirect, a library consortium that allows for inter-school loans and eases the burden on schools to maintain a frenetic pace of book acquisition.

Hyman said he hoped the next year would also see the creation of software that would correct this compatibility problem and facilitate cooperation with peer institutions, one of the major recommendations of the task force report.

The effort towards collaboration is a transition away from the emphasis on growth that has led the 370-year-old system to expand into one of the top five largest libraries in the world.

“The more crucial question is whether we have access—the less crucial question is whether we own it or not,” said Task Force Chair and Harvard Divinity School Professor David C. Lamberth.

“This is a phenomenal system, but it’s not ideally positioned to move into a kind of twenty first century library environment, which is evolving as we speak.”

—Staff writer Elias J. Groll can be reached at egroll@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Noah S. Rayman can be reached at nrayman@fas.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached at spitzer@fas.harvard.edu.

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