Fat Cats at Widener

It is about time for the Harvard Corporation to finally stand up to the bloated, budget-busting tyranny of the Harvard University Library.  Since John Harvard gave the university its first endowment of 400 books and a paltry 780 pounds to manage them, the library has been an odious drain on University finances.

Current plans to restructure Harvard libraries and institute deep cuts to staff, services, and collections in the consecrated name of financially responsible austerity are the result of the Library Task Force Report. This report was commissioned in 2009 to plan the slaying of the dread budgetary Scylla of Harvard Yard, Widener Library.  The Library Task Force Report represents a new vision for the library, arguing that Harvard is no longer in any position to try to “collect and maintain the entirety of the world’s scholarship”.  After all, why might a university with a peerless endowment also be expected to maintain an equally unrivaled library?

With an endowment of 32 billion dollars growing in 2011 at a meager 21.4%, Harvard simply can no longer afford to maintain the best and largest academic library collection in the world.  The library’s $225 million operating budget, an outrageous 5.7% of the University’s annual budget, must be further cut to improve the financial profile of the University. Although cutting costs and improving efficiency and effectiveness are not mutually exclusive, the Library Task Force Report makes clear that the Harvard Corporation has its miserly heart in the right place.  Why attempt to improve efficiency without laying off workers, or effectiveness without cutting resources?

The most crucial reforms commenced with the curbing of the library’s gluttonous book buying.  The Harvard Corporation stuck to its astute business strategy even in the face of opposition from over one hundred faculty members, who in response passionately called for the library to be allocated adequate funds to purchase needed new materials. The $12 million budget reduction in 2010 was another step in the right direction.  The preceding year, Harvard paid only $8.4 million to Stephen Blyth, the head of internal investments at Harvard Management Company, and he oversaw billions of dollars added to Harvard coffers. In contrast, the Library costs over $200 million per year and generates very little revenue. Faculty, students, staff, and researchers are tragically myopic stakeholders in the Harvard Corporation if they prioritize the maintenance of a preeminent book collection when it has consistently posted miserable returns on investment, especially as compared to Mr. Blyth.  The Harvard Corporation should continue to retract funding from its unprofitable knowledge capital and reinvest in more profitable sectors, like Gatsbyian birthday parties with gourmet cakes the size of the Woodberry Poetry Room

A recent Crimson editorial made the important point that Harvard must catch up with technological progress, even at the cost of significant staff cuts.  As a library employee at Widener, I have a particular insight into the excesses of the library staff. As preparation for my impending consulting interview, I have identified some examples of how employees might be replaced by technology, thereby saving thousands of dollars.  First, the experienced professionals who find rare and new publications from even the smallest bookshops, publishing houses, and universities across the world can easily be replaced by Google Books trending feature and the New York Times Top 10 Bestsellers.  (Amazon Listmania might be needed for more esoteric subjects requiring truly expert opinions.)  The Houghton Rare Books library and book preservation department positions can simply be abolished, as old books are irrelevant in the age of the Kindle.  The same goes for Mr. Widener’s musty, out-of-date books and Gutenberg Bible—the King James Bible has an expired copyright and can be downloaded on Project Gutenberg. And when you come to me and ask for help navigating thousands of archives and special collections, an automated voice could instead cheerily direct you to Wikipedia, or in a potential post-SOPA world, an Ouija board.

In a widely circulated Washington Post editorial, Alexandra Petri '10 called on Occupy Harvard to turn its attentions away from the abuses of the Harvard Corporation and instead to focus on “getting a grip on some small portion of the vast array of human knowledge” by “Occupy[ing] the libraries.” The current assault on the library exemplifies the limits of this passive and ultimately self-destructive understanding of knowledge. True intellectualism is daring to peek above the confines of carrels and actively engaging with knowledge, described best by the great pedagogue Paulo Freire as “emerging only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry, human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.” To those who have taken vows of intellectual hermitage, look out the window of our Ivory Tower and see that it stands on and is shaped by political and economic realities that, together, we have the agency to transform.  We can demand that the University as an intellectual center fully fund the library as the depository of knowledge-capital, or we can continue to ignore the perils of a profit-minded university and passively occupy the libraries.  For as long as they let us.

Melissa J. Barber ’13 is a social studies concentrator living in Kirkland House.


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