Panel Discusses Future of Harvard Library System

Kathryn H Kelley

Among a panel of prominent scholars and librarians, Mary Lister shares her vision for the library of the future at "Harvard Library Thinks Big: Harvard Library Strategic Conversations."

Less than a week after the University announced a restructuring of the Harvard library system, Senior Associate Provost for the Harvard Library Mary L. Kennedy and a panel of Harvard affiliates fielded questions about the reorganization and shared their ideas for the libraries’ future at a forum in Sanders Theater yesterday.

Throughout the event, entitled “Harvard Library Thinks Big,” audience members and those watching the panel via video-stream participated by posting questions through an online tool and tweeting comments with a pre-specified hashtag, “#hlsc11.”

The questions largely focused on the five affinity groups into which Harvard’s 73 libraries will be assembled as part of the restructuring.

The groups, which will be organized around libraries’ subject areas or content types, will focus on University-wide issues such as collection development and risk management. Group heads will be nominated from within the Harvard library community.

According to Kennedy, the restructuring is meant to give every Harvard library a voice.

“We now have a straight line to a decision-making body that can make recommendations to the president,” she said.

One question posed by audience member—which received more than 20 votes in the online tool requesting an answer from the panel—was “When will the hiring freeze be lifted?”

Kennedy stressed that administrators would have to consider the ongoing changes to Harvard libraries before bringing in new employees.

“We are asking if it is fair to bring someone on to do a job that after we finish this work may not make sense to have,” she said.

One research librarian from the Harvard Law School Library, who asked to remain anonymous, asked Kennedy to address librarians’ concerns that technical experts, such as cataloguers and bibliographers, will be removed from their local collections and become a part of centralized library services.

While Kennedy assured the audience that the changes to libraries would not negatively impact services, the Law School research librarian said that she was “not really” satisfied with Kennedy’s answer.

“I don’t think that they realize what we rely on to do a good job,” she said, adding that these experts help students select useful research materials.

Vice Dean for Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School John G. Palfrey, who moderated the discussion, addressed the audience’s anxiety.

“I sense a struggle in the room,” he said. “As painful as this may have felt to some of you, this is in fact our challenge.”

Yesterday’s interactive forum was the first event for a program titled Harvard Library Strategic Conversations, which is a series of discussions about the future development of the Harvard Library.

“As I go to libraries, I think, how cool would it be to carry Widener with me and take it to a site in Giza with me?”  asked Harvard Egyptology Professor Peter Der Manuelian, a panelist. “The library is starting to move out of the building and come maybe into your pocket.”

Research Director at MIT libraries MacKenzie Smith also spoke about the  role of technology in libraries.

“The world is dividing into the very important print-based collections, which are not losing value, and the increasing digital collections that are being created now,” Smith said. “They aren’t even like apples and oranges. They’re like oranges and tang.”

Smith also emphasized that university libraries need to collaborate and innovate in order to remain relevant.

“It is a global world now, and libraries like Harvard and MIT need to do more to build shared services across other institutions,” Smith said. “Other organizations like Google will do them and we will be invisible.”

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