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A Profitable Library?

Harvard sacrifices its library on the altar of efficiency

By Sandra Y.L. Korn

Last week, both the The Harvard Crimson and The Harvard Gazette published stories about the Harvard’s library transition. Although both articles quoted some of Harvard Library’s administrators applauding the achievement of the “completed” reorganization, the Crimson’s article discussed an important side of the library transition story that was notably lacking in Harvard’s official account: the stories of the workers in Harvard’s libraries.

What exactly “transitioned” in Harvard’s libraries in the past eight months? Most apparently, the library now has a new centralized website, which allows students to more easily find the hours and locations of libraries. But if we want to see the real changes that have occurred in Harvard Library, we need to look beyond its shiny new website and examine the values underlying the reorganization. Indeed, Harvard has rearranged the library workforce—in order to make the Harvard Library more “efficient.”

Last March, I wrote in an article in Perspective Magazine that Harvard administrators’ discourse around the library transition focused on efficiency, cost-cutting, and profit margins. Indeed, concern about costs seems to have dominated the library reorganization. Robert M. Angilly, a library worker, told me that as part of the transition, consultants came into his workplace, the Frances Loeb Library at the Graduate School of Design, where he has been working for over 30 years. The consultants searched for ways to make the library work more efficiently. According to Angilly, “They had the idea of pulling a structure they had used elsewhere kind of out of the hat and applying it to this problem.” He told me, “I just get the feeling they’re applying a corporate model on an academic environment, and it is not entirely applicable.”

One such corporate structure is “shared services,” an organizational model that centralizes work previously done by smaller cohorts. Last year, the State University of New York attempted to implement a shared services model to centralize university administration between its various campuses in an effort to save costs, sparking protests from students. Over the past few years, Yale has moved clerical workers and administrative staff into Shared Services in an attempt to “improve resource allocation,” but Yale faculty say that this reorganization has simply resulted in down-skilling and overlooking departmental needs. The trend has spread through higher education: Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley have recently followed suit.

Consulting firms are known to help businesses cut costs by improving efficiency through shared services models. Indeed, Harvard workers whose jobs are now classified as “shared services” may be shuffled from library to library, doing different jobs and reporting to different managers, as seems most cost-efficient for Harvard Library.

But this efficiency comes at another price: workers become dispensable, interchangeable, and alienated from their work. Karen L. O’Brien, a Library Assistant who currently works on acquisitions of Western European language books, told me, “I’m slowly starting to feel that they don’t believe any one of us has any special skills to do anything we do. They think anyone can do this work. [They think] if you have someone who doesn’t know the language, that’s fine.” O’Brien notes that staff cuts and reshuffling have also negatively affected services for patrons: students, faculty, and researchers may have trouble even accessing material from the collections when rooms are understaffed and cataloguing is incomplete.

James Cernosky wr­ote in “In These Times” about UC Berkeley’s recent implementation of shared services, noting that “by centralizing their control over the academy’s legworkers, administrators erode allegiances between academic and non-academic employees.” Indeed, Harvard’s experiment in shared services has already demonstrated that treating workers as interchangeable and moving them around like chess pieces results not only in confusion, but also in loss of knowledge. Meanwhile, the libraries have hired more student workers and one-year term workers to replace some of the 65 workers who accepted an early retirement package last spring, compounding the library’s loss of institutional memory and experience.

Of course, there are some areas in which centralization makes sense: for example, it’s logical for the Harvard Library to purchase only one online subscription to an academic journal instead of multiple copies. However, launching a new website and digitizing popular collections cannot make up for a library ethos that values profit over people. In the past eight months, Harvard has demonstrated that it values efficiency over its collections, over its employees, and over the quality of its library.

In the end, it is possible that the Harvard Library will now cost less to run in the long term. But is that really what we want? After all, a Library is not a corporation, and the largest academic library in the world has responsibilities beyond digitizing its most popular collections. Based on its rhetoric and its actions, Harvard seems determined to make its library profitable at the risk of losing some of what’s best about Harvard—its history and its people.

Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a joint history of science and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.

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