Online Chat Disturbs Library Employees

University says that administrators did not actually write the offending sentences

As the University continues to announce details of its planned reorganization of its library system, which will include staff reductions, a transcript alleging to show a virtual conversation between University officials and a concerned library worker sparked confusion and distress among library staff last week.

The chat, which was circulated among library employees in print and by email, purportedly depicts University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76 and Harvard University Library Executive Director Helen Shenton, writing together under the moniker “Alan_Garber_and_Helen_Shenton,” responding callously to questions written by “Angry_Librarian.”

Senior Associate Provost for the Harvard Library Mary L. Kennedy said in an email to library staff that Garber and Shenton did not actually participate in the typed conversation.

In the chat, the account claiming to be Garber and Shenton wrote, “life is full of risk. accept and move on,” in response to a question asking how library staff can decide whether to accept the University’s early retirement offer without hearing full details of the future of their current library jobs.

The screen shots of the conversation that were circulated depicted a practice session carried out by staff members who would be responsible for transcribing Shenton and Garber’s responses in an upcoming virtual conversation, according to a University official. Those staff members were testing the HARVie chat program the day prior to the actual online chat, the official said.

The HARVie chat system is a moderated online forum through which employees can communicate with Harvard officials or other individuals.

A link to view the live chat had already been shared with library workers in advance of the Feb.15 conversation. Some employees had entered the chat room a day early while the test was underway, said a library worker who clicked on the link and witnessed the test conversation live.

In an email sent to library staff Friday, Kennedy apologized for the incident and said it “had been addressed with the individuals involved.”

“Some of those test questions, and the answers entered, were understandably distressing and offensive to members of the Library staff, many of whom are anxious about the changes that are being implemented in their areas,” Kennedy wrote. “This is both unfortunate and not in keeping with Harvard’s culture.”

A majority of library employees interviewed for this story said they doubted the official explanation.

“People are losing their fear of management because they’re outraged,” said Jeffrey Booth, a library employee. “They’re not believing the official story, and that’s creating a lot of anger.”

Desiree A. Goodwin, a library assistant, said she found the University’s explanation inadequate.

“An IT staff member wouldn’t be playing around on an important project like that,” Goodwin said.

Goodwin, along with other library staff, pointed to the British spelling of the words “colour” and “flavour” in the chat as evidence of what she believes was Shenton’s involvement. Shenton formerly worked at the British Library.

The chat also attributed less polished sentences such as, “We are realigning our resources to ensure blah blah blah,” to Garber and Shenton.

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