Borrow Direct will be advantageous provided that libraries do not ease up on acquisitions
Harvard’s recent declaration that the Harvard University Library (HUL) and MIT Libraries would enter into the interlibrary sharing system known as Borrow Direct has unearthed a latent debate on the risk of sharing literary resources and Harvard’s role in promoting scholarship. Although many view the decision as a long overdue entrance into a system that will benefit all parties, some have expressed reservations about the effects that exposing Harvard’s texts to the rest of the Ivy League could have. While this announcement should be hailed as a positive, progressive step for scholarship everywhere, Harvard must not allow increased library access to temper its desire for new additions to its independent collection.
Harvard is, first and foremost, an academic community. Lending and borrowing texts from other institutions only serves to strengthen the scholastic atmosphere at Harvard and beyond. Further, evidence exists suggesting that fears about HUL’s collections being depleted are largely unfounded; at present, schools with larger collections tend to use the interlibrary loan system more heavily. As Marilyn Wood, HUL’s associate librarian of collection management wrote in a recent statement, “In 2009, Dartmouth Library, one of the two smallest libraries participating in BD, was the biggest lender.” There is thus no reason to suspect that this initiative can be anything but good for Harvard.
Further, a significant number of Harvard’s near 17 million volumes even remain untouched. The Harvard Depository, initially a warehouse for a minimal number of rarely used texts, serves as a reminder of the relative obscurity many books have languished in for years. By entering the Borrow Direct program, Harvard not only gains access to millions of monographs of material; it inserts works into intellectual discourse that may otherwise go unread or unused, a service to academia at large and a commitment to the future of scholarship and innovation.
This decision also speaks to Harvard’s broader commitment to extending education beyond its gates. Participation in Borrow Direct furthers the goal the Division of Continuing Education and televised Justice seminars already serve: to push the frontiers of scholarship and blur the distinctions between the institution and the public in ways unfathomable only decades ago. Harvard’s latest support for these ideals is encouraging, and we appreciate that University takes the initiative to educate the larger community in which it exists and on whose support its successes depend.
Nevertheless, the administration should remember that Harvard University’s expansive library system is one of the critical elements that keep Harvard at the forefront of the academic world. Beyond the scholastic import of the collections lies an intrinsic historical value that Harvard would do well to maintain. Involvement in Borrow Direct should serve as no substitute for increasing the size or scope of current collections; at the core of Harvard’s eminent library system is an aggressive acquisition program. This decision will only prove beneficial if HUL couples book sharing with a firm commitment to maintaining and strengthening current acquisition policies.
With some of the most comprehensive collections in the world, a divergence from the relatively closed library system of the past presents Harvard with a singular challenge; without the insular nature of the past, the impetus for growing an independent collection becomes less urgent. Through complacency, Harvard puts itself at risk of losing what keeps the academic community vibrant and inquisitive. If Harvard truly means to step into the future of Borrow Direct, it must also affirm the principles of the past that have made its collection the trove of knowledge it is today.