Monday, March 19, 2012

OH Crimson Op-Ed - A Real Dialogue on Layoffs

A Real Dialogue on Layoffs

Two weeks ago the Graduate Student Council hosted what it called an Open Forum with Provost Alan M. Garber ’76, the administrator charged with overseeing the library restructuring and the public face of Harvard’s threatened layoffs. As a forum for a discussion, and as a space open for debate, the GSC event was a farce. Unfortunately, this failure to engage the Harvard community in a meaningful dialogue is now part of an established pattern whereby library workers, students, and community members are excluded from the decision making process at Harvard.

We call upon Garber, Library Executive Director Helen Shenton, and University President Drew G. Faust to engage students, staff, and faculty in a sustained dialogue on our libraries. Given the confusion and uncertainty surrounding the library restructuring, we urge Garber, Shenton, and Faust to pause, consider carefully the concerns of the Harvard community, and assure all workers and staff that they are vital participants in the future of our libraries. We need a firm commitment: real participation by library users and no layoffs for library workers.

The “Open Form” proved neither open nor substantive. Garber did not answer a single challenging question about the Harvard libraries. After filibustering for thirty-five minutes by recounting the details of his academic training, Garber escaped serious questioning and discussion for the next twenty-five minutes by answering only pre-screened and pre-approved questions. Although he promised to answer questions after the meeting, he departed angrily when asked about the University’s plan to lay off workers.

GSC President Cammie Valdez and Treasurer Mary Moore shielded Garber from the inquiries of attendees of the Open Forum while prioritizing non-controversial subjects pre-submitted online. Many of these “questions” were obvious attempts to avoid Garber’s present role: the library’s head henchmen, responsible for giving academic respectability to the aggressive labor-cutting being pursued under the guise of library “restructuring.” Unable to follow-up or press Garber on his misleading statistics and evasive answers, attendees were prevented from having a real discussion on the libraries and layoffs.

Harvard has already shrunk the library workforce by more than four hundred workers since 2003, from around 1400 to around 950 today. Cracks in the once venerable system are emerging. Moving collections to the Harvard Depository has become so rushed that librarians believe invaluable documents will be lost forever. Mangled, incomplete or faulty listings threaten to undermine the entire search system as incremental errors accumulate. Quickly-trained student workers have been pressed into service in the place of professional research librarians. Harvard’s libraries must not be treated as merely a cost in the balance sheet. The staff who make these libraries a reality for scholarship and research are not just labor costs.

Layoffs of Harvard library staff are neither inevitable nor necessary. Garber has propagated this assumption while the Crimson editorial board has blithely embraced it. Workers, meanwhile, are left to wonder anxiously about their future. The Harvard community must begin to address and reverse this corrosive assumption that layoffs are necessary. Misleading statistics and claims, like Harvard’s spending more on the libraries than its peer institutions must be met with the obvious fact that our collection is twice as large. Moreover, Provost Garber knows this. Why does he resort to misleading statements? We are owed, and the future of the libraries depends upon, discussion, reconsideration, and redirection towards a plan that values our priceless scholarly collections and the labor of those who create and sustain our libraries.

Harvard library workers are dedicated, highly trained, and committed to improving the libraries and serving patrons. They possess priceless institutional knowledge that cannot be digitized or outsourced. We must recognize their knowledge, experience, and contribution. From dozens of conversations and meetings with staff across the library system, it is clear to us that workers oppose this restructuring not because they are selfishly protecting their jobs but because they understand from their internal perspective that the current plans threaten the integrity of an institution they cherish: Harvard’s libraries. Rather than wanting to preserve supposedly redundant jobs, library workers need to be given the space, security, and respect to do their work well. Unless we all recognize that their library work is essential to scholarship of our whole community, not only will the libraries suffer but so also will this university and its position as a leader in research and learning.

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