Update on What’s happening at Harvard

First, the meta stuff. My blog post summarizing What’s happening at Harvard was originally intended as an email to a colleague who missed all the hoopla because she was on a plane heading to ALA MidWinter in Dallas. On a whim, I decided to post it on the blog as well. Apparently, the interwebs love a good summary–that post got more hits (and more comments) in a few hours than the entire blog usually gets in a month. A similar thing happened when I wrote a Round-up on Authors Guild vs. HathiTrust.

(Note to self #1: Don’t be shy about posting something that is “just a summary”. Note to self #2: Whenever you wonder whether to share something with a broader audience than originally intended, just do it.)

Since Thursday, lots of additional summaries, information, and analyses have hit the internet.
Perhaps the most important thing published was The Transcript of the actual Town Hall Meetings.
The transcript contains the actual remarks made by Mary Lee Kennedy, Senior Associate Provost, and Helen Shenton, Executive Director. It does not include any of the Q & A after the remarks. Much has been made of the fact that very little new information was actually shared at these Town Hall meetings, and the transcript seems to confirm that. As far as I can tell, Harvard Library staff have known since 2009 that downsizing of various distributed technical services operations was coming. The first recommendation of the Report of the Task Force on University Libraries was to “Establish and implement a shared administrative structure”. It seems to me that the town hall meetings served to make official that “the Library workforce will be smaller than it is now.” I suspect that the frustration and anxiety felt by many Harvard staff after the Town Hall meetings was the lack of new details. They have known for 2 years that something was coming, so an official reminder that “the ax is still hanging over their heads” was not particularly well-recieved by many. In addition, Shenton’s announcement that “all Library staff are invited to state job preferences, to articulate skills and to provide a resume by creating and submitting an Employee Profile” was interpreted by some to mean that all staff would have to effectively re-apply for employment with the Harvard Libraries. It is clear from subsequent information that is not accurate, but I can see how staff who are already stressed and hungry for some detailed information might interpret it that way.

Let me pause here to say that it is not my intent in any way to second-guess Kennedy or Shenton. They are in an incredibly difficult position. It would be easy for me to speculate on how I might have handled this differently, but the truth is that I do not have all of the information about the constraints, pressures, and mandates they are likely facing. At any rate, I do applaud them for posting the transcripts of their remarks, and encourage all of us who are following along at home to read them.

Equally important were insights from those who were actually at the town hall meetings including:

  • The Great Librarian Massacre (and Other Episodes in Harvard Cultural History)*: Tom Bruno, Head of Resource Sharing at Widener Library, Harvard, provides an excellent first-hand account and reaction to the Town Hall Meetings. Tom writes “So while a lot of what’s been said on the Internet has bordered on hysteria, I hope you’ll at least forgive those of us Twittering from the epicenter of yesterday’s announcements for our gut reactions to the endgame of a very long and painful reorganization process.” No need to ask forgiveness, Tom — I hope the outpouring of on-line support for you and your colleagues is evidence enough that we are with you in spirit and with as much empathy as we can muster.
  • The Crimson Thursday: Michael Bradford, cataloger with the Harvard Divinity School, provides another first-hand account and reaction. Most telling was his admission that although “we all knew that with a massive reorganization like the one taking place, that there were going to be reductions. It was still a shock to see the words on the screen and coming out of Helen Shenton’s mouth.” The words he refers to were “the library workforce will smaller than it is now.” Bradford echoes others who indicate that the town hall meetings served only to “ratchet up the anxiety, fears, and trepidation amongst the library staff”‘ without providing any new details.

Other blog posts tackling the story include:

  • The Harvard Libraries Reorg: What’s the Takeaway?: “Harvard’s radical reorganization is not akin to the day the music died, but it is a harbinger of things to come for many libraries of all stripes.” I beg to differ. My sense is actually that what Harvard is doing now (in terms of downsizing and centralizing) is actually what many of us have already done. I think this is a case of Harvard emulating its peers, rather than a case of the rest of us eventually following in Harvard’s footsteps.
  • Reformat and reinstall approach to organizational change rarely works: Edward Bilodeau, a librarian at McGill University, claims that “it is clear that they (Harvard Library Administrators) have decided to bring about the needed organizational change in a short amount of time, and the impact on their people, their careers, and their personal lives is not very high on the list of priorities.” I think that is a particularly harsh and cynical interpretation of the situation, without much (if any) evidence to support it. In my opinion, those directly affected get to grumble, speculate, and engage in as much hyperbole as is useful to them. I would like to see the rest of us avoid speculating on motives and casting aspersions.
  • Harvard U. Libraries, Reorganization, and Transparency: A Note for Leadership: Colleen, academic librarian and author of this blog, notes “I still cannot decide what about transparency frustrates leaders so much that they will not engage in its practice.” We don’t know exactly why the Harvard Library leaders have not revealed more details about the reorganization at this time, so I’m not sure it is fair to speculate that they are deliberately avoiding transparency. We do know that the lack of more detailed information right now has caused some significant anxiety for staff, and (thanks to social media) for the wider library world. I do think the issue of transparency and leadership is really important. Frankly, it is one of the top struggles I have had since moving into an AUL position in 2009. As a colleague recently said to me “the higher up you move in an organization, the more secrets you have to keep.” Sometimes you have to keep secrets to protect individual privacy, sometimes to protect financial information, sometimes because your boss asks you to, and sometimes for any variety of other reasons. I have given quite a bit of thought to how to be as transparent as possible in a leadership position — I actually have a draft blog post on the topic. Guess it is time to dust it off, flesh it out, and get it posted soon.
  • The Library Loon on Restructuring: The Loon essentially says she saw this coming, it is coming to other libraries, it is needed, and research librarians better be ready for it. Being the Loon, she says it with eloquence and a delicious level of snark.
  • Of Anxiety and Reorgs – Harvard Libraries Today
  • …What it is ain’t exactly clear…

And, some straight-up press accounts:

This story is far from over. Stay tuned.

11 Responses to “Update on What’s happening at Harvard”


  1. 1 Martha Hruska February 10, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Appreciated your post very much. Interesting to see that for the very fair report you gave, what you get quoted as saying in the Boston Globe today, http://bo.st/wABPaS.

  2. 4 ConsiderJennifer January 25, 2012 at 6:01 am

    I appreciate your attempts to remain unbiased with all this “hoopla” as you put it. And thank you for all the external links with more info on these developments. It will be interesting to see how it turns out and what implications that has on the library profession as a whole.

    On a side note I encourage you in your two “notes to self” :)

  3. 6 Ray January 24, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    Thanks for pointing up the restructuring post by Library Loon–should be required reading for all research librarians who care about their institutions. Right on, Loon!

    • 7 Chris Bourg January 24, 2012 at 5:43 pm

      I had never heard of the Loon’s blog until this story broke — am very glad to have discovered her. You know how I love a healthy dose of snark mixed in with insightful commentary on important topics ….


  1. 1 Share everything. With everyone. Most of the time. | Feral Librarian Trackback on March 31, 2012 at 11:41 am
  2. 2 Harvard Library jobs open to public. Let’s not apply. | Feral Librarian Trackback on March 15, 2012 at 10:32 am
  3. 3 On Harvard, being quoted out of context, and a fleeting 15 minutes | Feral Librarian Trackback on February 10, 2012 at 4:25 pm
  4. 4 Free Range Librarian › Coming home Trackback on January 23, 2012 at 10:57 pm

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