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Library System in Jeopardy

By Carrie Barbash, Alex Chisholm, and Bill Jaeger

Since 2009, Harvard has been reorganizing its 73 libraries into a consolidated entity, the Harvard Library. Library staff members are deeply concerned that some of the proposed changes, including workforce reductions, will result in serious threats to the integrity of the Library. We worry that if the voices of staff are not heard and the reorganization continues on its present course, thousands of books and materials could be lost, service standards could drop to unacceptable levels, and human relationships that are key to research, curriculum, and collection development could be severed.

In recent communications, Harvard Library leaders have implied that staffing levels need to be reduced to put us in line with our peers, asserting that Harvard spends more on its library than other universities. But HL leaders have not provided the community with any data to support the assumption that this discrepancy is caused by “overstaffing.” We would expect Harvard Library to be more expensive to operate than its peers—it is larger, with a spectacularly broad and unique collection that requires sophisticated maintenance. It has significant offsite holdings, and offers deluxe services such as HD Transfer and “Scan-and-Deliver.”

Additionally, since 2009 (which is when the data comparing Harvard to other schools were gathered), Harvard Library staffing levels have dropped by more than 20 percent. More recently, the University offered eligible library workers an early-retirement package. With the threat of possible layoffs heavy in the air, many long-time staff members will likely take the package and leave. Harvard Library cannot afford to lose any more skilled workers. Across the campus, librarians and library assistants report serious quality problems resulting from understaffing and overreliance on poorly-considered cost-cutting measures.

In order to reduce labor costs, HL increasingly sends books and materials to external vendors for outsourced cataloging. The results are alarming: outsourced materials are frequently cataloged with mistakes in title, author, subject, or call number. Since staff members often do not have time or permission to make corrections, the errors have led to thousands of materials becoming undiscoverable. The materials reside physically on shelves or in the Depository, but patrons are unable to locate or retrieve them. Precious books, films, journals, documents, and other treasured resources are being lost.

In all library departments, students and temps provide valuable assistance to overworked permanent staff, but dependency on short-term staff actually creates more work. Although temporary workers seem low-cost, the amount of time permanent staff spend training them on sophisticated tasks, and checking and correcting their work, cancels out most or all of the savings. When a short-term worker leaves and is replaced, this process begins all over again.

Staffing shortages are also affecting circulation, with some departments reporting 30 percent staffing reductions since 2009. For smaller libraries, this often means that there is only one person on duty, and tasks like searching for missing items and preparing materials for transfer necessarily get set aside to help patrons. Staff regularly skip lunch and breaks, or work when they are sick, because there is no one else to cover for them.

Conservation technicians talk about how a deep understanding of their particular library’s collections allows them to know which of the rare, fragile materials need attention. Their unique expertise and cross-departmental relationships often enable them to repair items on the same day the work is requested. But as this skilled group becomes scarce, technicians struggle to maintain high levels of quality.

Librarians and assistants regularly work on projects that span departments and require advanced skills. Often these projects fall outside of official job descriptions, but they are vital to patrons’ efforts to carry out research, develop curricula, teach courses, and diagnose patients. If staffing levels are cut further or jobs are over-simplified, these critical functions will suffer.

No one person can claim to have the authoritative model for the great Library of the 21st century. But there is only one effective approach to such a major reorganizational effort: the process needs to be transparent and participatory. If the cautionary cries of library staff about severe understaffing and quality concerns are not heard and heeded, the Harvard Library Transition will not be successful.

One staff member sums up the urgency of the moment beautifully: “There is such a breadth and depth of knowledge within the library support staff that could easily be used to make the new Harvard Library a reality and a rousing success without cutting a single job. We are already at bare-bones staffing level in my library, and I hear the same thing from everyone I talk to. Don't fire us. You need us. Put us to work, give us new tasks, new ideas, new technology—we are knowledge junkies, we love drowning ourselves in books, media, anything containing the written or spoken word, and we can do anything you throw at us… I enjoy learning. For its own sake. That's what makes a librarian (or in my case, a library paraprofessional) tick. That's what I love. And I'm not alone, not by a long shot. Everyone I work with shares the same passion.”

Carrie Barbash, Alex Chisholm, and Bill Jaeger are organizers with the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents close to half the Library workforce at Harvard. This piece was written with the assistance of unionized library staff and non-unionized librarians from across Harvard.

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