What’s happening at Harvard?

The twitterspere (at least my corner of it) was all abuzz today about the Harvard Library Town Hall meetings (hashtag #hlth). Harvard Libraries have been in a “transition” for some time now, and it appears that the meetings today were intended to provide library staff with some updated information on the transition. Judging from the tweets, it was not particularly effective — more questions than answers apparently.

I have absolutely no insider knowledge at all, but as far as I can tell from trying to keep up with the tweets all day:

  • An initial tweet claiming “All of Harvard Library staff have just effectively been fired” was re-tweeted often, as was a Google+ post written by a former Harvard University Library staff member.
  • Later tweets clarified that no staff were laid off … today. Layoffs are imminent, however, and more details will be available next month.
  • The layoffs will be in areas that are “Shared Services” — such as technical services, preservation, and access services; not collection development, research librarians, or special collections.
  • Some jobs will be eliminated, some restructured, some new jobs created.
  • For restructured and new jobs, internal candidates will be solicited first.
  • All library staff are being encouraged to fill out employee profiles (with skills, interests and a CV/resume), which will factor into decisions about restructuring (and presumably who stays and who goes, and where the stayers go …). It looks like the deadline for completing profiles is only 1 month away, and workshops on how to do so are already full.
  • The general sentiment on twitter is that the senior administrators at Harvard Libraries handled this very poorly — that the town hall meetings produced more questions than answers. Rather than serving to keep staff informed, they served primarily to create significant anxiety.
  • Plenty of folks are worried that as Harvard goes, so go other academic libraries – in other words, if massive layoffs can happen at Harvard (with its huge endowments), then no academic library is safe.
  • An official Harvard Library Transition Update was posted publicly on January 17. More official Harvard Library Transition stuff on the Harvard University News site.
  • Excellent first-hand accounts and analyses from @mpeachy8 and @oodja.

I know a least a few folks who actually work at Harvard occasionally read here, so I do hope they will correct anything I have wrong, and chime in with any additional information. I hope they also know that I wish them well in what is obviously a super difficult and stressful time.

38 Responses to “What’s happening at Harvard?”


  1. 1 author January 22, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I like libraries. I love librarians. But everyone has to come to grips with the fact that Google does it much better. They’re cheaper, faster, and greener.

    I know, I know. Humans will have their John Henry moments when they beat the steam engine, but librarians are going to need to come to grips with this fact.

    (BTW, the relentless Internet threatens Harvard itself. There used to be a big advantage to be at Harvard with its wonderful Widener Library. You could do research you couldn’t do anywhere else. Not any more. The only advantage to Harvard now is the snob appeal. So the librarians shouldn’t feel singled out.)

    • 2 Chris Bourg January 22, 2012 at 1:31 pm

      What exactly is the “it” that Google does better than libraries?
      You will get no argument from me that Google does search better than most library catalogs and search tools– but research libraries provide much, much more to the scholarly community than that.
      The folks who have commented here about the intellectual work involved in cataloging items (so that they can be indexed and discovered via library catalogs and even Google) provide one powerful example of something libraries do that Google never will.
      I could go on … But maybe other readers will pick this one up.

    • 3 Marilyn Quinn January 22, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      Actually, I find Google to be somewhat limited and clumsy to use as a search tool, for scholarly research in particular. It does not retrieve results based on any kind of relevance related to the subject matter half the time, nor are the results well-collocated and related to various physical formats. It also takes longer to evaluate a result, knowing that in many cases, it could have come from anywhere and maybe has been doctored along the way. There is a very limited consistency in the use of indexing terms in Google, particularly with names and titles that change radically from language to language. As limited as library catalogs are at present, students and researchers know that whatever they find will have been vetted somewhere along the line. Also, not all books have been digitized yet (will they ever be???), and not all digitized texts are accessible to everyone. I often get asked by a library user how to print off a chapter from Google Books, and I have to tell him it can’t be. You have to read it online (ugh).

      The library profession is working with the Web 3.0 developers in hopes we can take advantage of Tim Berners-Lee’s “semantic web”. In preparation, library folk are creating linked metadata. Hopefully, this will make library resources more visible on the web. Right now they are hidden.

      Once a more semantic web arrives, it may be as easy for me to find a nicely collocated display of all of Stravinsky’s compositions in all formats, no matter what title they were published under, as I can now do in a library catalog.

      Library catalogs are in the final years of the most recent generation of so-called integrated library systems, which were developed primarily by proprietary developers. We are getting more and more into open source experiments, and more importantly, beginning to use so-called Discovery Tools (also proprietary in many cases). We are at a very early stage of the next generation of library catalogs. Their development has been slow, partly, I think, because librarianship has not been encouraging professional cataloging, metadata design, and collaboration with other systems developers, until now. It’s actually a very interesting time to be a cataloger now, unless you are afraid you will be fired because your numbers are down.

  2. 4 Larry Creider January 20, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    At some point,research library administrators are going to have to realize that if they are going to collect unusual material, whether digital or paper, they are going to have to devote resources to describing it. Libraries and catalogers can and have cut costs, eliminated shared cataloging by going to WorldCat Local (using Institutional Records for rare materials), but there will always remain a certain amount of intellectual effort involved in providing access to the names, works, and subjects involved in a research library’s collections.

    I suppose one could save costs by developing language and subject specialists in a center that has enough personnel that people can become experts in what they catalog, but such a development requires a good deal of money and not simply whittling down your professional cataloging staff and then complaining about backlogs, as many research libraries have done. The only way to eliminate the problem is to eliminate most of your sophisticated collection development and to decide to be an undergraduate library. Even then one cannot get away from doing some original cataloging.

    Harvard’s purported technique sounds like it could not be better calculated to produce a traumatized and alienated staff.

  3. 5 quick January 20, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    I wonder about the point “Plenty of folks are worried that as Harvard goes, so go other academic libraries – in other words, if massive layoffs can happen at Harvard (with its huge endowments), then no academic library is safe.”

    Many academic libraries have already gone through restructuring and painful cuts the past few years. Unless the AULs themselves are going to order materials, catalog them, and answer reference questions I just don’t see how libraries can be cut any more.

    • 6 Chris Bourg January 20, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      Excellent point.
      And, just for the record, this AUL does in fact answer reference questions–I do an hour a week on the reference desk. Wish I could do more.

    • 7 Midwest Cataloger January 25, 2012 at 1:53 pm

      Our library just went through a restructurig this past summer and fall. And we were under a quick deadline also. The comment heard over and over was “it appears that a bunch of library deans/directors got together and came up with this idea”. Not so much the restructuring but the quick turnaround. We too filled out a skills survey that was then ignored because we gave them too much data to ingest! We have survived and no one lost a job. We lost a position to another area (as is always the case with technical services). We are outsourcing a lot of our cataloging of new materials. We are told that we are needed for the hidden collections and the metadata. A big fear I have is that this kind of work isn’t obvious to the powers because a lot of it is digital and it can’t be seen on the shelves.

      • 8 Chris Bourg January 25, 2012 at 3:39 pm

        Thanks for your comments MC. I think there are clearly some communication lessons we can all learn from the Harvard situation.
        I also think that as deans/directors face budget pressures, it is increasingly hard to sell faculty budget groups and president/provosts on the need for more $$ for cataloging. It is absolutely vital that we keep $$ there, and that the work get done … but it can be a real challenge to sell to provosts and presidents who are looking for flashier projects and programs to fund. Also hard to find donors who want to fund cataloging and other vital “back-room” work. We need to find ways to make the case for adequate base funding for technical services to funders who don’t fully understand the needs and challenges.

  4. 9 B. Salt January 20, 2012 at 5:49 am

    Very good summary, thanks for this! The misinformation on Twitter yesterday was really alarming. One other detail that may seem obvious, but needs repeating, is that the administration is committed to a workforce reduction and the original library evaluation report suggested that other comparable academic research library peer institutions achieve comparable (or better) work results with fewer people. And yes, I do work within the Harvard Library system, have so for over 31 years and have loved it … until recently.

    • 10 Chris Bourg January 20, 2012 at 1:02 pm

      Thanks for commenting and adding an insider perspective. Interesting note about the peer comparisons and benchmarking. To be honest, when we do benchmarking in terms of staff numbers, Harvard has always been an outlier — usually 2-3 times higher # of staff for a given function.

    • 11 Marilyn Quinn January 22, 2012 at 12:11 pm

      How do you define work results in cataloging? No backlog? Adequate access points for retrieving needed resources in the catalog? Consistent encoding making transfer to other standards possible? When it comes to cataloging, I have learned in my 30+ years of doing cataloging, that administrators have no idea what it involves. Instead, their idea of productivity boils down in the end to numbers of records, not what is actually in the records. I do believe that the future may make this task less time intensive, but that is not here yet. Many catalogers are also required to spend at least several hours a week at other activities, like reference and instruction, something I enjoy doing, but it does make it harder to do an adequate job of cataloging, and I have to catalog in all formats in all subject areas. The body of knowledge it takes to catalog only grows over time.

      I only know one administrator who actually did cataloging at one time. They assume that OCLC takes care of cataloging for us, and it does help tremendously, but it takes knowledge to select an OCLC record out of many similar ones and more and more duplicates….plus make sure access points were adequately coded. Cataloging isn’t getting less complicated, and it won’t in the near future. (Hopefully, some degree of machine cataloging and easier batch loads will come along. The one plus I give centralized cataloging is the extra time it gives catalogers to do a good job. However, when they are taken away from the company of other librarians, they lose their valuable input.

      Downsizing libraries always hits the back rooms first, i.e. the catalogers and their staff.

  5. 12 Kate Shortfield January 19, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    Yes, an excellent summary.

  6. 14 Jonathan January 19, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    For those of us currently in the job market, are we about to be faced with a flood of more experienced competition?

    • 15 Chris Bourg January 19, 2012 at 8:36 pm

      Good question Jonathan. Already a tight job market and it looks like it will get a bit tighter.

    • 16 Diane January 26, 2012 at 4:56 pm

      Don’t worry – libraries, like most organizations, don’t want to hire anyone with a lot of experience (= old) – they want younger inexperienced people that they can pay less and intimidate more.

      • 17 Chris Bourg January 26, 2012 at 5:23 pm

        Diane-I’m sorry if that has been your experience. I can assure you though, that what you describe does not match the Hiring policies or practices at the Stanford Libraries. We hire the best person for the job — see our Admin Guide: “Stanford University does not discriminate on the basis of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical or mental disability, medical condition, marital status, sex, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law, in connection with any aspect of employment at Stanford”

        http://adminguide.stanford.edu/23.pdf

  7. 18 Abigail Bordeaux January 19, 2012 at 7:17 pm

    In my opinion, you’ve done an excellent job of sifting through the tweets and separating hype and emotion from facts. Well done. A couple additions: there will be “voluntary staff reductions,” with details still to come on what that means, and more workshop sessions will be added as needed (the latter announced at the 4 p.m. session I attended, by which time the workshop sessions were full).

    (For context, I work in the Harvard Library Office for Information Systems, a department still waiting to hear how we will fit into the new organizational structure.)


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