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Dust Settles As Library Changes

By Hana N. Rouse and Justin C. Worland, Crimson Staff Writers

Leaders of Harvard Library touted the successful integration of Harvard’s 73 libraries into a single University library in an interview with The Crimson Wednesday.

“This is unprecedented,” said Executive Director for the Harvard Library Helen Shenton. “We’ve never done this before. Harvard’s never done this before.”

But librarians interviewed by The Crimson said that from their perspective working within the system, the dust has far from settled.

On Aug. 1, the University officially completed a library reorganization that has been over two years in the making. Harvard has described the effort as a move to adjust the library’s resources to the needs of the 21st century by reducing inefficiencies in the system and investing in innovation and advancement.

In an email sent Thursday to Harvard faculty by University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, he described the restructured organization as “off to a promising start.”

Garber could not be reached for comment for this article.

A new online Harvard Library portal, which consolidates functions that were previously spread across a number of websites, is among the more visible changes. The restructuring also created several new departments whose employees serve the same function across the entire system, allowing library to minimize overlap and increase efficiency.

Despite administrators’ confidence in the effectiveness of the transition, librarians described Harvard Library as being in a state of limbo, with many of the potential benefits of the reorganization yet to be realized.

Under the new organization, jobs were renamed and positions reshuffled such that some workers now report to supervisors they had never interacted with in the past.

According to Shenton and Senior Associate Provost for the Harvard Library Mary Lee Kennedy, workers went through orientations over the summer to acclimate them to the new system.

Kennedy and Shenton said that helping workers adjust to the reorganized system is an ongoing process, one that will continue in the months to come.

The Crimson spoke to 23 librarians for this story, 14 of whom declined to comment on this article. Those who agreed to an interview were granted anonymity so that they could maintain relations with administrators.

“There are increasing amounts of chaos because things are still in transition,” said one librarian. “People have moved on or moved to different places and we haven’t had any communication about who’s in charge now for specific functions.”

The librarian acknowledged the need for changes to the library system, but said that the execution has made her job more difficult. She also said she believes that the current problems would eventually be fixed.

The reorganization left the library staff 12 percent smaller than it was last year. Sixty-five employees accepted early retirement packages as part of the Library’s Voluntary Early Retirement Incentive Program. In early July, Harvard Library laid off an additional six workers.

Administrators said streamlining and an emphasis on efficiency allow the new Harvard Library to operate with fewer employees. But librarians, who overwhelmingly characterized the system as “understaffed,” said that the reductions have detracted from quality of service.

“My work has not been negatively impacted yet, but I feel it will be as this understaffing continues,” said one librarian. “As there are fewer [library workers], trying to do the same amount of work as before, there’s bound to be delays, unanswered questions, and unhappiness from library patrons.”

Shenton said she recognizes that some difficulties were to be expected.

“I don’t underestimate the complexity of what we’ve done,” she said. “It’s early days, if you think that this has been probably the biggest change in the library ecosystem. It will take time for it all to work through and for us to look very closely at how we do things and how can we do things better and how can we do things differently.”

Kennedy said that while some confusion was to be expected when dealing with such a massive project, the very nature of the transition has left Harvard Library more unified than ever and capable of dealing with potential issues.

“We are going to make mistakes, everyone is going to make mistakes,” said Kennedy. “But the fact that we’re going to figure this out together in a way that wasn’t possible before is really quite phenomenal.”

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at hrouse@college.harvard.edu.

—Staff writer Justin C. Worland can reached at jworland@college.harvard.edu

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