Harvard to revamp its library system

Will modernize and consolidate

By Mary Carmichael
Globe Staff / February 11, 2012
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Harvard University announced yesterday a sweeping overhaul of its labyrinthine library system, including the consolidation of services, the shuffling of many of its 900-plus employees, and offers of buyouts to others.

Details will be finalized over the next few weeks, but the changes will affect staff at every level, provost Alan Garber said in a statement.

In a subsequent interview, Garber said the plans were necessary to bring the library up to speed in the digital age. “We’re trying to modernize the library to maintain its position as the leading academic library in the world,’’ he said. “We have unrivaled collections and a remarkable staff. We just haven’t been organized to take advantage of all that we have.’’

With 73 semiautonomous branches, the library is the world’s largest academic collection, a point of pride at the school. But its size and structure have held back efforts to adapt to digital technology and the increasingly high cost of academic journals, said Garber’s statement.

The library branches have individual staffs whose jobs could be redundant after services are consolidated. But Garber said there is no official number of staffers who could be targeted for early retirement plans or layoffs. “We aren’t even at a time at which we could give a meaningful answer to a question like that,’’ he said. And, he added, Harvard generally prefers “voluntary separations.’’

Many Harvard librarians have complained on Twitter and a private e-mail list that they feel left out of the decision-making process that led to yesterday’s announcement. Some, fearing involuntary layoffs in the wake of controversial internal meetings last month, said cuts could hurt the library.

“I want so much to trust this process,’’ said James Adler, who works in cataloging at the Divinity School. “I’m still hoping the university is looking to do the right thing.’’

The plan calls for consolidating services across branches and developing systemwide policies on what materials are acquired, how they are stored and preserved, and how students and scholars can retrieve them.

That is likely to mean canceling identical journal subscriptions held by different schools, a move that could provoke a conflict with academic publishers who will lose money as a result.

Publishers have fought similar efforts at other schools, arguing that even after partial consolidations, the libraries remain separate.

“We have heard of instances of duplicate electronic subscriptions as well as physical journal and books. That’s particularly inefficient,’’ Garber said. “We’re essentially paying twice for the same thing.’’

The plan also suggests that the branch libraries’ information technology staffers and resources be combined with those of the university as a whole.

On Wednesday, university president Drew Faust released a statement expressing her admiration 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.’’

Many of the suggested changes for the library have already been implemented in some form at other universities, such as the University of Massachusetts Amherst, which reformed its library system a decade ago amid state budget cuts. That meant canceling many print subscriptions and merging science libraries.

The university also shrank staff by 20 percent, mostly through a generous early retirement plan, said Jay Schafer, director of the libraries.

Harvard, too, has shrunk in recent years. During the economic crisis in 2009, as part of a universitywide downsizing, it offered buyouts to library workers, laid off a small number of people, cut hours for others, and decided not to fill a few open positions.

Rumors that Harvard’s new plan might call for more layoffs have provoked an outcry among librarians - especially after the contentious meetings in January, during which employees were told to fill out skills profiles and expect both voluntary and involuntary dismissals.

Some 70 protesters - including librarians, Occupy Boston participants, and student labor activists - rallied in Harvard Square Thursday, chanting, “Hey, Harvard, you’ve got cash. Why do you treat your workers like trash?’’

But Garber said that criticism did not resonate. “We’re talking about a vision for improving the library,’’ he said. “That’s a very odd way of looking at it.’’

Bill Jaeger, director of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers, said he appreciated the warm tone of Garber and Faust’s recent statements compared with the harsher tone of the January meetings. But he still wanted more details.

“There’s been a cloak of secrecy wrapped around the reorganization plan,’’ he said. “It doesn’t make any sense. It’s a library, not a military organization.’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @mary_carmichael.

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