Future of Harvard Libraries Uncertain

Library Workers Say Concerns Go Unheard

For Classical Archaeology Professor Adrian Staehli, a day of research involves darting across campus from library to library.

Staehli’s research centers on Greco-Roman sculpture and painting, and requires him to compare texts from across the University library system.

As universities begin to take steps to digitize their library collections, it would seem that Staehli’s life is about to get a lot easier—but the digitization of library texts may come at a price.

Some of the books Staehli uses measure more than six feet in height, and the experience of handling these unique, highly-detailed books cannot be replicated on a computer screen, he says.

While it takes only a second to flip a page, it can sometimes take up to several hours to download a high-quality file, he noted.

As Harvard moves forward with its plans to massively revise the organization of its 73 libraries, Staehli says he worries that his unique concerns as a classical archaeologist fall on deaf ears.

“We hardly are informed about the restructuring. We hardly have any influence,” Staehli says. “And sometimes, of course, it is hard to see the purpose.”

Staehli says he has chosen to remain optimistic about the plans. But he is not the only member of the Harvard community to express concern over the administration’s lack of communication as it seeks to bring the University’s monumental library system into the 21st century.

When Harvard University Library Executive Director Helen Shenton announced the possibility of layoffs in January, she inadvertently sparked a public relations nightmare for University administrators, who struggled to convey the details of library restructuring to an angry staff and a bewildered faculty.

As doubts about the future of Harvard libraries have mounted, what faculty, library workers, and administrators have called lackluster communication on the part of the University has led the Harvard community to question whether a restructured library system will meet its needs.

RAISING CONCERNS

Hundreds of library staff members gathered to hear a major announcement in a series of town hall meetings on Jan. 19.

“The new organizational design has not yet been approved, but it is certain that it will be different from the current one,” Shenton said. “A key change: the Library workforce will be smaller than it is now.”

Her statement precipitated a wave of rumors among Harvard employees.

“All of Harvard Library staff have just effectively been fired,” wrote one library employee on Twitter shortly after the first town hall meeting.

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