Members of the task force examining Harvard’s libraries emphasized the dire structural problems confronting one of the University’s most cherished resources, causing professors to express concern about the health of the libraries in the face of potential consolidation.
At yesterday’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting, Dean Michael D. Smith—who ominously repeated the phrase “demands on our library have grown”—said that the University must address the intense budgetary pressures confronting the libraries.
“I ask that we not spend today’s meeting criticizing the past or rehashing historical budgets,” Smith said. “I ask that we focus on the future. What ideas do you have? What are the key characteristics of a model that can be held up as a future of the library system?”
Even before the financial crisis hit the University last fall, the library system had struggled to find the necessary resources to sustain desired acquisition rates, according to Harvard University Library Director Robert C. Darnton ’60, who said that the libraries are “being bled to death.” Acquisitions fell precipitously last year, a problem compounded by the rising costs of periodicals and a long period of declining resources at Harvard, he said.
A number of professors said that further budget cuts could permanently damage the libraries’ core mission, since the libraries were experiencing neglect well before the financial crisis.
Amidst a weakened dollar—which drove up the cost of foreign purchases—and skyrocketingcosts across the board, and a stagnant unrestricted budget, the Harvard College Library’s operating budget has “effectively” decreased over the past decade, according to Classics Professor Richard F. Thomas.
The number of staff added to FAS over the past six years is roughly on the same scale of the entire Harvard College Library staff, which actually shrank over the same period of time, according to English department chair James T. Engell ’73. This year alone, HCL reduced its workforce by roughly 100 employees, including several acquisition librarians.
It appears more cuts are to come.
Smith wrote in his annual report released Friday that the administration hopes to “rebuild HCL with a dramatically smaller base of resources.”
“It’s hard to see how we cannot suffer damage if we are losing personnel—resources who are essential to our research and teaching,” Thomas said in an interview after the Faculty meeting. “How can you keep subtracting and claim that you’re somehow adding by doing that?”
A task force chaired by University Provost Steven E. Hyman has been charged with recommending changes to Harvard’s library system this semester. The group will release a finished draft of a report detailing preliminary recommendations in about two weeks, Hyman said yesterday.
Robert C. Darnton ’60, the HUL director, director of the Harvard University Library, said that the impending report should be viewed not as a “blueprint” for the exact structural changes to be implemented in the library system, but as a foundational “step in a process” where professors can outline priorities and suggestions—echoing Smith’s stated hope that the report serve as an “opening” for broader discussion within the Faculty.
“We’re in a very difficult situation—the economic crisis has brought it into crisp focus,” said Nancy M. Cline, chief librarian of HCL. “We cannot do all that we have done in the patterns of ways we have done it in the past.
One of the task force’s main goals, Hyman said, is to ensure that students and faculty have access to much of the world’s scholarly works “in perpetuity” by taking advantage of digital resources, but such access does not necessarily mean “ownership and preservation of everything.”
Darnton said that Harvard’s library system is in “active discussion” with MIT about the possibility of collaborating with the peer institution’s libraries, noting that “no serious library can go it alone anymore.” Harvard is also considering collaborative efforts with libraries outside of the country, according to Darnton.
“You have worked to raise the alarm,” Smith said about faculty anxiety regarding the status of the libraries. “Consider it raised.”
Provost Addresses Library ChangesUniversity Provost Steven E. Hyman sought to reassure faculty members yesterday that the newly appointed committee for library changes would not overstep its bounds.
Harvard, MIT Share Library ResourcesHarvard and MIT libraries today announced the possibility of a long-term collaboration that will explore joint efforts to preserve digital materials, ease access between library catalogues, and build a new shared storage site.
A Painful NecessityIn order to provide the services that push the boundaries of knowledge forward, the libraries may have to shed some workers.
Take a Break. Think.At a time when the University is restructuring the library, we will work to change what a library is understood to be. We seek to alter long-lived structures and arrangements, thus disturbing what may seem like short-term stability in service of much longer-term purposes.
Transition With No TransparencyThe lack of transparency in the proposed restructuring of the library system—seemingly consisting of layoffs and an “incentivized” early retirement program affecting an undisclosed number of HUL employees—has every library employee on edge.
A Real Dialogue on LayoffsHarvard library workers are dedicated, highly trained, and committed to improving the libraries and serving patrons. They possess priceless institutional knowledge that cannot be digitized or outsourced. We must recognize their knowledge, experience and contribution.