The right library reforms will preserve the health of Harvard’s collections

Harvard’s massive library system is a university treasure. Preserving the quality and size of this rich academic asset is a worthy goal, and even in the midst of a recession, when cuts must be made and services must be discarded, the library system should be one of the last to feel the pinch. Hopefully, this principle will guide the university’s plan to revamp the library system to make it more centralized, digitized, and cost-effective, allowing Harvard’s collections to emerge from budget cuts more or less intact.

The plan to reform the Harvard College Library system, which was recently detailed in the university’s Library Task Force Report, aims to reduce the costs of maintaining the vast but fragmented Harvard College Library system by uniting the university’s 73 libraries under a central administrative body, transitioning to digital books in lieu of physical copies, and participating in book-lending programs with other schools.

Unifying the disparate elements of the library system makes sense, although it is not without its drawbacks. Student concerns that this will lead to the closing of departmental libraries are not unreasonable, but they are outweighed by the fact that centralization of libraries has the potential to make a convoluted system more navigable and accessible for everyone.

Similarly, the digitization of books will produce myriad benefits by making books more easily accessible and less expensive to acquire and maintain. However, this is also not without unfortunate consequences—many attach an important sentimental value to hard copies of books that cannot be replicated in equally massive, but electronic, collections. But we already possess large stores of physical texts that will not be abolished by library reforms; the “profound stimulus to the imagination” of walking through the Widener stacks described by English Professor Robert Scanlan will not be a victim of reforms. However, the concerns of students whose work relies on having physical copies should be taken very seriously so as not to hamper important niche fields of study.

Unification and digitization have their problems but are on the whole positive changes that are not at odds with maintaining the excellence of the university’s offerings. However, engaging in book-lending programs with other schools appears to be a less elegant solution to budgetary issues. The book-sharing system would diminish the immediate accessibility of texts and undermine the growth of a valuable academic resource. We should focus instead on acquiring texts so that they are accessible to students on demand, rather than participating in lending programs that open up competition for books to a wider audience and make the process of gaining access a book difficult. Rather than curtailing the Harvard College Library’s growth by shifting toward lending rather than acquisition, the university should continue to focus on reforms like centralization and digitization, which are in line with the goal of maintaining an academic treasure while also making it efficient.


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