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HUCTW Releases Open Letter on Library Transition

By Dan Dou and Samuel Y. Weinstock, Crimson Staff Writers

The Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents many of the workers in the Harvard Library system, released an open letter to the Harvard community Monday morning that raised concerns of understaffing in the Library and the lack of transparency in the ongoing restructuring process.

HUCTW leaders wrote the letter in response to Harvard University Library Executive Director Helen Shenton’s Jan. 19 announcement that the Library would reduce its staff through a voluntary retirement process and possibly layoffs.

The letter, which features testimony from unnamed union and non-union workers, warned that the transition process may fail if it does not involve workers, adding that understaffing and outsourcing already threaten the Library system’s quality.

“The process needs to be transparent and participatory,” stated the letter, which was published in The Crimson on Monday. “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.”

Although leaders from HUCTW have previously sent several letters to the union’s membership, this is the union’s first open communication to the larger Harvard community regarding the restructuring.

But despite the open letter’s warning against potential layoffs, its authors emphasized that the letter’s criticism was targeted at ill-conceived plans, not the Library transition itself.

“This isn’t meant to be an anti-transition letter—it’s meant to make the transition work, and the only way it’s going to work is if these concerns are heard and heeded,” said Carrie E. Barbash, a HUCTW Organizer and one of the letter’s authors. “[The workers are] a group who are deeply committed to their work in the libraries. They want the reorganization to be great, too.”

Barbash said union leaders decided to write the letter following the first meeting between HUCTW representatives and Harvard Library officials.

“We just weren’t feeling like we were being heard,” Barbash said. "It just seemed that after that meeting we really wanted to open this up more and broaden the conversation.”

HUCTW leaders have worked on the letter for the past week, Barbash said. In addition to Barbash, the letter’s principal authors were HUCTW director Bill Jaeger and HUCTW organizer Alexandra E. S. Chisholm.

A University spokesperson declined to comment on the open letter but pointed out that Harvard has included Library employees in forum and working group discussions during the past two years of the transition process. The spokesperson added that a series of joint council meetings will be held starting in March so that HUCTW and Library management can negotiate the Library reorganization.

James R. Adler, a cataloging assistant at the Harvard Divinity School, said he appreciated the letter and agreed with many of its points.

“[The letter] walked step-by-step through the reasons this needs to be done more carefully and with more participation,” Adler said.

The effects of understaffing are a daily struggle, Adler said.

“It’s something we feel constantly,” he said. “I don’t even feel like I can go to half of the meetings because of all the work I have to do. We have been stretched so thinly.”

Adler added that he feels the University has not done enough to incorporate employees in this undertaking.

“I feel like we have not been listened to—and the results are showing,” Adler said, referencing the low morale of his coworkers. “If we had been allowed into the process much earlier, I think it would have been a better process.”

Despite these concerns, Adler said that he and other library workers support the University’s creation of a more modern library system.

“There are two visions here,” Adler said. “The library of the 21st century is one vision. Also, there’s the nightmare of layoffs. It’s impossible for the staff to see past the first nightmare and see the vision.”

—Staff writer Dan Dou can be reached at

—Staff writer Samuel Y. Weinstock can be reached at

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