The Sun Sets on the Traditional Library

Harvard navigates the transition to a more centralized library system for the 21st century.

Updating Libraries
Robert F Worley

In a controversial year, Harvard University's Library struggles to define its next steps.

It’s been a tough year for the Harvard University Library.

An announcement of planned staff reductions prompted consternation and confusion among library workers. Faculty expressed doubts over the administration’s vision for a 21st-century library. And a number of communications missteps on the part of the University fueled growing tensions with the community at large.

The administration has acknowledged these widespread concerns and has met anger and protest on the part of library workers with greater communication and interaction. But for the most part, these efforts have failed to quell concern. At the heart of the problem, community members—faculty and library employees alike—are unsure what the library’s rhetoric actually means.

“There’s some confusion among our members about where exactly this is headed or what the goals actually are,” said Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, which represents many of Harvard’s library workers.

Faculty expressed similar sentiments. “I think they’re just lost,” said Ali S. Asani ’77, chair of the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. “They’re sort of grasping around.”

Harvard library administrators and countless experts around the country agree that modern university libraries must adapt to increasingly digital, interconnected, and complicated forms of knowledge to avoid irrelevance. Harvard University Library administrators have picked up on that theme, trying to generate excitement for change with talk of sweeping reforms to centralize and digitize the library.


Since talks of large-scale change for the libraries first began in 2009, the University has maintained a consistent message on the impetus behind the library reorganization: In a rapidly changing environment, the Library is in danger of falling behind.

Now is the time for the libraries to look inward to resolve structural weaknesses and inefficiencies, administrators have said.

In March 2009, Steven E. Hyman, who served as University provost at the time, created the Library Task Force, which he charged with charting the future of the libraries at Harvard. It was this task force that proposed that the University merge Harvard’s 73 disparate libraries into one coherent system in a report that characterized the old model as “fragmented and outmoded.”

The report laid out five fundamental recommendations: create a shared administrative structure, revamp information technology systems, revise the library’s financial model, increase collaboration with peer institutions, and improve acquisitions and access.

“We will come out of this process with an organization that is more responsive to the needs of the research and teaching communities across Harvard,” Hyman said in a statement at the time. “The panel will set priorities to tailor the system for the rapidly changing digital information landscape and propose reforms aimed at supporting collecting, preservation, and other core activities.”

Experts agreed that the libraries must modernize in order to stay relevant.

“It’s not just change—it’s transformation,” said Rachel L. Frick, director of the Digital Library Federation. And for those that are left behind, “I have not been shy to say that there will be places that will still have a library building, but they won’t have a functioning, engaged library.”

University libraries nationwide have become especially focused on two themes, centralization and digitalization.