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Future of Harvard Libraries Uncertain

Library Workers Say Concerns Go Unheard

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

For Classical Archaeology Professor Adrian Staehli, a day of research involves darting across campus from library to library.

Staehli’s research centers on Greco-Roman sculpture and painting, and requires him to compare texts from across the University library system.

As universities begin to take steps to digitize their library collections, it would seem that Staehli’s life is about to get a lot easier—but the digitization of library texts may come at a price.

Some of the books Staehli uses measure more than six feet in height, and the experience of handling these unique, highly-detailed books cannot be replicated on a computer screen, he says.

While it takes only a second to flip a page, it can sometimes take up to several hours to download a high-quality file, he noted.

As Harvard moves forward with its plans to massively revise the organization of its 73 libraries, Staehli says he worries that his unique concerns as a classical archaeologist fall on deaf ears.

“We hardly are informed about the restructuring. We hardly have any influence,” Staehli says. “And sometimes, of course, it is hard to see the purpose.”

Staehli says he has chosen to remain optimistic about the plans. But he is not the only member of the Harvard community to express concern over the administration’s lack of communication as it seeks to bring the University’s monumental library system into the 21st century.

When Harvard University Library Executive Director Helen Shenton announced the possibility of layoffs in January, she inadvertently sparked a public relations nightmare for University administrators, who struggled to convey the details of library restructuring to an angry staff and a bewildered faculty.

As doubts about the future of Harvard libraries have mounted, what faculty, library workers, and administrators have called lackluster communication on the part of the University has led the Harvard community to question whether a restructured library system will meet its needs.


Hundreds of library staff members gathered to hear a major announcement in a series of town hall meetings on Jan. 19.

“The new organizational design has not yet been approved, but it is certain that it will be different from the current one,” Shenton said. “A key change: the Library workforce will be smaller than it is now.”

Her statement precipitated a wave of rumors among Harvard employees.

“All of Harvard Library staff have just effectively been fired,” wrote one library employee on Twitter shortly after the first town hall meeting.

Despite rampant speculation, the administration declined to provide specifics regarding the potential scope of the layoffs. Given little official information, library workers were left to worry that they would not have a place in the restructured Harvard Library System.

“The cuts, the outsourcing, the use of Terms, the coerced early retirement and the threat of layoffs are all very real. If you think you are safe, this time around, you may be,” wrote one employee to a staff email list. “But try and think of all of your colleagues who are not ‘safe.’ Try and face reality. And try and help those of us actively trying to save the library system and our jobs.”

Library workers say that their alarm over staff cuts is born out of a concern for the welfare of the library system.

Employees say that the quality of library services suffered following the last round of layoffs in 2009, when heavy blows to the University’s endowment led the Harvard College Library—the largest unit within the University system—to reduce its staff by roughly 100 people.

“A lot of procedures were simplified to make them go faster. That has consequences,” says library assistant Jeffrey Booth.

According to Booth, the number of mistakes made by his department while creating records for the Harvard Online Library Information System increased following the staff cuts in 2009.

But many faculty members who frequent the libraries say any drop in service quality since 2009 is not as noticeable to patrons as the staff may suggest.

“The library’s worked extremely hard to [maintain] service,” says English professor Nicholas J. Watson. “By most definitions service has actually improved quite [a lot].”

Watson, like many faculty, says that his biggest concern for the reorganization is that the University maintain its strong print collections and its current rate of acquisitions.

“I hope it will continue to collect the world’s knowledge as broadly as it can,” says Near Eastern Languages professor Peter B. Machinist ’66 of the restructured library system.

But some faculty concerns may be exaggerated. As the University drafts its plans for what it calls a “21st century library model,” administrators say they will continue to make acquisitions a priority.

Administrators say they are taking long overdue steps to bring the libraries up to speed, including mass digitization efforts, the introduction of mobile technology, and a new grouping system based on academic areas.

“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,” wrote University President Drew G. Faust in an email to the Harvard community in early February.

While faculty say they understand the library’s needs to modernize, they say that many of their questions have remained unanswered.

“We could have done and plan to do a better job communicating in the future,” says University Provost Alan M. Garber ’76. “We’re talking about turning 73 libraries, many of them independent of the others, into a unified system. This is one of the most complex projects I think that any of us have ever been involved with.”


The University sees the changes to its library system as fundamental to maintaining Harvard’s preeminence as an institution of academia. But throughout the process, faculty and staff say that administrators have struggled to communicate that message to the community effectively as attempts to articulate the objectives behind the restructuring have been overshadowed by talk of potential layoffs.

In an interview with The Crimson in March, Faust said she thought more attention should be paid to the goals of the reorganization.

“The higher purposes of the library reorganization [have] not been articulated forcefully enough,” Faust said. “We [have] to keep in mind why we are doing this.”

Shenton’s January statement about staff layoffs was the first in what University Librarian Robert C. Darnton ’60 has described as “a series of catastrophic misunderstandings” throughout the reorganization process.

Since her initial announcement, library workers have perpetually requested specifics regarding the extent of the layoffs. The administration has kept its responses at a minimum.

“The lack of answers to these important questions has created a great deal of anxiety and frustration for you, and for our faculty and students,” said Senior Associate Provost for the Harvard Library Mary L. Kennedy on Jan. 19, according to Library Transition iSite. “We simply did not have the answers.”

On Tues. Shenton maintained in an emailed statement that the University had still not determined “what the impact on individual positions will be.”

“We are still in the process of working through the needs of the new structure and are assessing the results of the voluntary early retirement incentive program, which is just concluding, so it is too early to say,” wrote Shenton.

The University has sought to maintain an open dialogue with its employees, holding more than 70 meetings with senior administrators.

But these attempts have often been plagued by bad luck and met with frustration by employees.

In February, the University held a moderated online discussion for Garber and Shenton to respond to workers’ concerns.

Days before the scheduled virtual chat, a transcript alleging to show the University officials responding callously to questions from a concerned library worker circulated among staff.

In the chat, the account claiming to be Garber and Shenton wrote, “life is full of risk. accept and move on,” in response to a question asking how library staff can decide whether to accept the University’s early retirement offer without hearing full details of the future of their current library jobs. Library workers who saw the chat were outraged.

Days after the incident, administrators explained that the transcript came from a test run of the system conducted by employees—not Garber and Shenton.

But library staff remained skeptical. Almost a dozen library workers interviewed said they did not believe the official University explanation, exhibiting a distrust in the University’s intentions.

Faculty have expressed similar exasperation about the University’s lack of open communication and reluctance to involve the faculty in decision-making.

“I’m a little concerned about the force of faculty involvement,” says music professor Thomas F. Kelly. “I’m not sure the faculty has the force to put the spoke in anybody’s wheel.”

Though Staehli says he has concerns, he believes it is not too late for the University to mend its relationship with faculty and staff and avoid communication missteps going forward.

“I’m confident because I’m an optimist,” Staehli says. “We’re at Harvard. We can achieve a lot. As long as [the administration] sees the needs, they’ll help us achieve such things.”

—Staff writer Hana N. Rouse can be reached at —Staff writer Justin C. Worland can be reached at

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