Harvard plans to consolidate library, reshuffle employees
Harvard University revealed its long-awaited plan for restructuring its library system this morning, calling for “changes that affect staff at every level” that are likely to include consolidating many services, reshuffling some employees, and offering buyouts to others.
With dozens of semi-autonomous branches, the library is the world’s largest academic collection, a point of pride at the school. But its size and structure have resulted in redundancy and held back efforts to adapt in an age of digital technology and increasingly expensive academic journals.
The plan calls for consolidating services across the branches -- from access to digital preservation -- and developing systemwide policies on what materials are acquired and how students and scholars can retrieve them. It also suggests that the branch libraries’ information technology staffers and resources be combined with those of the university as a whole.
“It replaces a fragmented system of 73 libraries spread across the schools with one that promotes university-wide collaboration,” Garber said in the statement.
Many of Harvard’s suggested changes have already been implemented at other universities, such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which overhauled its library system a decade ago amid budget cuts, eliminating many print journal subscriptions and shrinking its staff by 20 percent through an early retirement plan.
On Wednesday, Harvard President Drew Faust released a lengthy statement expressing both her love as a scholar for the university’s library and her concern that it is falling behind.
Its decentralized organizational scheme “has left us unable to make integrated strategic decisions about the digital future, so that we have not kept pace with essential new technologies,” she wrote in a letter to the Harvard community “It has led to duplications in services and acquisitions; it has caused us to miss economies of scale; and has produced overhead costs that are significantly higher than those of our peers.”
The new plan, based on two years of internal study, is designed to bring the library up to speed.
But many Harvard librarians said they felt left out of the loop, and some said staff cuts could hurt the library.
Rumors that the plan might call for massive layoffs have provoked a fearful outcry among the librarians -- especially after a series of contentious meetings in January, during which employees said they were told to fill out skills profiles and expect both voluntary buyouts and layoffs.
After those meetings, the surprised librarians took to Twitter, with one complaining that “all of Harvard library staff have just effectively been fired,” a statement that circulated widely on the Internet that turned out to be untrue.
Some 70 protesters -- including librarians, but also Occupy Boston participants and student labor activists -- held a rally in Harvard Square Thursday, chanting, “Hey, Harvard, you’ve got cash. Why do you treat your workers like trash?”
Librarians outside Harvard were also awaiting the changes with concern.
Steven Bell, a librarian at Temple University, wrote that the fury over change at Harvard might stem from the university’s stature and cultural resonance.
“The restructuring may not diminish the strength of the collections or services, but there is a strong emotional connection to what these academic libraries mean,” he wrote in the magazine Library Journal. “At your institution or mine, eliminating branch libraries may cause some departmental ill will, but ultimately it is seen as sensible and necessary. At Harvard, it is perceived as an ill-conceived tearing of the cultural fabric.”
A blogger named Chris Bourg, an assistant university librarian at Stanford University,” wrote that as Harvard goes, so might other universities: “If massive layoffs can happen at Harvard [with its huge endowments], then no academic library is safe.”