Faculty Voices Library Unease

FAS professors express concern about future changes in library system

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.”


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