Library Forum: Active Again

24 Nov

Library Forum was created in 2012 by a group of concerned library staff, students and faculty at the time of the Harvard Library Transition–the reorganization of Harvard’s library system from 70+ libraries into a single library with a centralized administration. Our major focus at that time was the threat of mass layoffs announced by the leaders of the Transition Team (Mary Lee Kennedy and Helen Shenton) at town-hall meetings in January of 2012.

We organized a public forum in April of 2012, well-attended by a broad cross-section of the Harvard community. Graduate and undergraduate students, professional librarians and library support staff, and faculty from several disciplines spoke strongly against layoffs and in favor of an ongoing commitment to quality by retaining skilled staff throughout the library system. (A summary statement of our alternative vision for the future of the Harvard libraries can be found here. ) We also met with the Transition Team (see our open letter) and separately again with Provost Alan Garber to express our concerns.

Harvard announced the completion of the transition to the new Harvard Library in August of 2012. Although the immediate threat of mass-layoffs was averted, Harvard significantly reduced staffing in the libraries by offering a very early retirement package to many of its most skilled employees. (See Setting Back the University).

Policy changes instituted since that time have made several us feel the strong need for an alternative, independent source of information about developments in the Harvard Library. We are relaunching this website in the interest of providing more information to the Harvard community.

The Harvard Crimson recently published the results of an internal assessment of the library restructuring, crediting it with budgetary savings due to increased efficiency in the new organization (see the Crimson article). We contend that in the central administration of the Harvard Library there is an increasingly destructive trend toward saving money through drastic cuts in quality to facilitate reduced staffing and increased outsourcing of library work. (See a staff perspective on restructuring here.)

The FAS libraries have been especially hard hit by these developments. Sarah Thomas, the head of the central administration for the Harvard Library and the driving force behind these policy changes, is also the director of the FAS libraries. This means that, for all the disciplines served by FAS, there is no independent library director who would be more directly accountable to faculty and students and might resist policy changes on their behalf. Current trends are likely to continue unless members of the community who care about the FAS libraries demand a more active role.

Some recent developments in collection development and technical processing:

  • New copy-cataloging guidelines with severe reductions in quality. In 2014 new copy-cataloging guidelines were introduced against the objections of the support staff consulted for the project who were most familiar with this workflow (see open letter here). These guidelines have potential long term impacts on the ability of researchers to find books in Harvard’s collections, as they eliminate crucial functions that technical services staff perform to ensure that books are filed correctly under the right indexes for authors, titles and subjects.
  • Level 3 cataloging. In 2015 the use of minimally cataloged “level 3” records was expanded for the bulk of materials received by the FAS libraries. Books with level 3 records receive no subject analysis and in most cases lack classification numbers. The bulk of these are sent directly to the Harvard Depository. With minimal level cataloging, it becomes impossible to find these books unless a researcher already knows title, main author, or ISBN (i.e. they won’t be retrieved under a subject search, a search for associated authors, or other associated access points). Despite assurances that automation will upgrade basic and insufficient records, staff remain unconvinced. Deficient data may never be supplied, records may be “enhanced” with incorrect data, or records may remain minimal for long periods, leaving researchers unable to locate materials.
  • Direct to destination. 2015 also saw the introduction of a new workflow called “direct to destination” in which books supplied by vendors go directly to the shelf without local staff review. Under this workflow, book vendors more independently select titles for the collection and for-profit, outside companies catalog the books and label them for shelf. These changes take all-important review and quality control out of the hands of local, specialized staff allowing for increased data errors. In “direct to destination,” even the minimal oversight of ensuring that vendors are supplying appropriate books and charging the correct amount has been removed.



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