Library Lays Off Six Workers, After Months of Worry

After months of speculation over whether the Harvard University Library would fire staff and “a series of catastrophic misunderstandings,” in the words of the library’s director, the answer seemed clear at last in a July 12 letter – the library system has laid off six employees as a part of its reorganization.

In the letter, as well as subsequent letters on July 13 and July 17, Executive Director Helen Shenton and Senior Associate Provost Mary Lee Kennedy also announced that the library’s administration had informed about 400 employees of their new service area, work group, and supervisor.

Employees will begin their new assignments on August 1, when the University will launch its restructured system.

Staff reduction has played a major role in library discussions since Shenton first brought them up at a Jan. 19 meeting without announcing the number of employees who would lose their jobs or whether the cuts would be voluntary. Some concerned library workers and supporters took to the streets several times in the winter and spring to protest anticipated layoffs.

The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents many of the library’s employees, released an open letter in early March warning that staff reductions could imperil the transition’s success and the library’s quality. HUCTW Director Bill Jaeger declined to comment on the recently eliminated positions.

Before announcing the six layoffs, the library offered a deal termed the Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program to qualified workers. Sixty-five accepted the package and retired.

Shenton and Kennedy’s July 12 letter attributed the “minimized number of staff reductions” to the early retirement program and “the Schools’ careful management of vacancies.”

James R. Adler, a cataloging assistant at the Harvard Divinity School and a HUCTW member, said that he and his coworkers found it odd that the administration decided to lay off just a handful of employees given the size and wealth of the library system.

“We’re happy that there weren’t more than six and the leadership deserves praise for this, but our heart goes out to the six,” Adler said. “And it’s sort of surprising and mystifying why there would be six—why they couldn’t have made this a completely banner start of this transition, instead of almost one. And again, the University deserves praise for this—but still, and so puzzlingly unnecessarily, not quite the complete banner start it could so easily have been, and did come so close to being.”

Adler said that though some of his co-workers are disappointed about transfers and other changes to their jobs, the staff’s overall mood has improved now that the threat of layoffs has passed.

“I think morale is higher,” Adler said. “People are looking ahead.”

Adler sits on one of the three joint councils that were formed early last spring to facilitate discussion between HUCTW and library administration about the transition, particularly about staff reduction. He said he expects that employees and the University will now focus more on accomplishing the transition smoothly since the fear of an untold number of layoffs has subsided.

“At the beginning the questions were the basic ones—mainly layoffs, in fact,” Adler said. “But now, the devil will be in the details. Now it’s about the many important details that follow now that the transition is about to be launched. I think both sides are committed to making this successful.”

—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at sweinstock@college.harvard.edu.

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