Open Letter to Mary Lee Kennedy on the Harvard Library Transition

13 Jun

June 12, 2012

Dear Associate Provost Kennedy,

We would like to thank you for agreeing to meet with members of our group Library Forum on Friday, June 8, to discuss our concerns about the Harvard Library Transition, and to thank Scott Wicks and Jim Borron for participating in the meeting. In the interest of promoting a more open discussion in the Harvard community, and also of further clarifying the issues we discussed with you, we are sending you this open letter both documenting the substance of our conversation and requesting further responses.

Here again are the substantive concerns that we raised:

1)    Staff reductions

Harvard has claimed that the purpose of the Transition is not cost-cutting, but modernizing and improving the libraries through innovative and more efficient practices. Claims have been made that the new library will maintain or improve upon current levels of quality, expand into new areas of technological innovation, and at the same time reduce staffing levels. The conversation initiated at the Library Forum event suggests that library workers, faculty, and students consider these claims absurd.

In technical services, there has been an ongoing decline in quality due to current staffing levels, especially since the losses in 2008/2009 and the hiring freeze. The current round of losses due to VERIP will only add to this problem. The atmosphere of uncertainty, the threat of impending layoffs, and the deplorable lack of information about the details of the Transition have created further incentives for talented staff to leave, a source of further staff reductions. All areas of the libraries have suffered, with additional major losses of talent and expertise in reference and collection development.

We have included literature that we have compiled on the impact of staff reductions and other cost-cutting measures to the Harvard libraries. [Here and here.] We would draw your attention to our discussion of outsourcing. Currently, libraries are making up for the shortfalls in staffing levels by outsourcing to vendors an increasing amount of work that used to be done by local bibliographers and technical services staff. This involves an intrinsic conflict of interest, as vendors have an interest in selling books, not in building the best possible library collection and making it accessible to researchers.

We’d like to underline that these effects are cumulative. Generations of careful work in building Harvard’s collections and making them accessible to researchers can be undone by short-sighted administrators in a few years.  Materials that get sent to depositories without adequate cataloging are effectively lost to researchers. The damage, once suffered, is much harder to repair.

Since the announcement of potential layoffs in January, and the overwhelming outrage expressed by different parts of the Harvard community, we’ve seen a variety of statements suggesting that there is no current plan for additional staff reductions. New department heads have suggested both in open meetings with current shared services staff and with members of the joint councils that there will be no further layoffs.

Action: We’d like the Transition Team to make an official recognition that staff reductions are a mistake, and to reverse its position publicly. If we really want to meet the demands of creating a new and better library of the future we need more people not fewer.

2)    Dislocation of Shared Services staff

When the plan was announced to create a single, centralized library structure, there was considerable discussion of different models of centralization. Everyone seemed to agree that greater coordination in the selection and purchasing of materials for the libraries–with a view to creating a single collection and eliminating unnecessary duplication–would be useful. Such a model would involve centralization in selection, but distribution in processing and services. Centralization in processing and services, on the other hand, was seen as a disaster, since it promises to remove a layer of local expertise and create a multiplicity of inefficiencies.

It was thus a great surprise to see the Transition Team propose a “shared services” model for the libraries. What currently works well in the libraries depends on consistent contact between staff now designated as shared services and staff now designated as local, and between both sets of staff and the collection.

To take an example: Centralization in technical processing, if it removes acquisitions, receipts, and some parts of cataloging from local collections, can only harm the collections. People who order, receive and process books need to refer back to the collection if they want to do their jobs adequately, since it’s often impossible to tell whether a book being ordered or received duplicates the library’s current holdings without consulting the stacks. Processing sets often requires looking at the physical sets. Cataloguers develop areas of expertise that are subject specific, language specific and in some cases site specific: multivolume sets collected by particular libraries require special procedures depending on a history of decisions made by the library about how to collect them and provide access. Centralizing such work will not make the library more, but rather less efficient, and will disastrously reduce quality.

Additionally, Collection Development becomes a ‘local’ service while the staff with whom Bibliographers work become ‘shared.’  Bibliographers work with technical services staff in building the collection and this consultation is key.  This new model seems to propose even more distance between the two and makes collaboration even more difficult when higher numbers of ‘shared staff’ become responsible for a local collection.  A really strong Harvard Library must have specialized, dedicated Bibliographers.  Recent departures in Widener’s Collection Development include caretakers of some of the collection’s largest publishing areas, Western Europe and the Librarian for American History and North America.  These positions are vital to the collection and must be filled promptly with highly qualified individuals.

Beyond physical relocation, there are problems with a proposed shared service model as it impacts the ability of staff to make proper use of their individual expertise (collections, language, subject area).  An excessive focus on standardizing procedures and workflows discounts the value of local practice.  Over-reliance on temporary workers also devalues core competencies which are accumulated by long term, permanent staff.

As with layoffs, library staff have been told a variety of conflicting things on this subject at different points in the Transition. We are now being told that “shared services” might not involve moving anyone anywhere or changing how they work on collections. If this is true, we don’t understand why we are being designated as “shared services” and what advantage this will have in the future.

Action: We would like to see the Transition Team recognize the value of local knowledge currently held by staff that have been designated as “shared services” and to codify as policy the preservation of existing local networks.

3) Decision making process

The people who are best situated to make important decisions about the libraries are the people who use them and who have worked to maintain and develop the collections.

Harvard had an opportunity early in the process to engage staff, students and faculty in the process of planning the new library structure. Instead of offering staff resume writing workshops, the Transition Team could have organized workshops in every library and across libraries in similar areas of work to discuss needs and improved processes.  Since the new structure has not yet been implemented, the possibility of engaging the Harvard community in the process of making the most important decisions is still open, but this requires a significant reversal of current practices.

Action: Engaging the community doesn’t mean taking polls and surveys or creating focus groups, “sourcing” the community for information, and then concentrating decision making power in the hands of a secretive executive team. Library staff (both professional and non-professional), students, and faculty should be fully involved in the discussion in open forums, and organized into committees to make the decisions. The discussion and decision making process should be public, open and participatory. This is the culture we need if we want to create a real library of the future that will both preserve what’s valuable in the libraries as they exist and create new possibilities for libraries.


In your discussion with us, you suggested that the Transition Team was already engaging the Harvard Community in meaningful ways through local meetings with library administrators, the development of the Memoranda of Understanding, and in collaborative projects. But we’d like to reiterate that the vast majority of the Harvard community has been excluded from the process of discussing and helping to decide the most crucial questions that have major impacts both on the collections and on the day-to-day work in the libraries.

Perhaps we can best underline the issue at stake by reference to your assurances in our meeting that “everyone will know where they are sitting” before the end of July. As we mentioned, we are not so much concerned about where we will be sitting, but rather about the implications of these arrangements for the work that we do. If shared services staff are physically centralized and removed from contact with local services and collections, we believe that this will only harm the libraries. We don’t want to be told where we will be sitting after the decision has been made. We want to be involved in the process of making the decision.

We were pleased to hear that you share our concerns for maintaining contact between local services and shared services staff, or as you put it “building stronger bridges, not weaker ones.” We would like to see that goal spelled out as policy, and to receive commitments that centralization doesn’t mean physical centralization of shared services staff.

This same concern applies to assurances both from you and from Scott Wicks that a model of cataloging involving statistical quotas for technical processing (x amount of time per book, or y number of books per day) is not currently being considered. We’d like more than just a general statement of your commitment to quality. In cataloging, quality requires time, and time varies according to the nature of the item in hand. A substantially reduced workforce adversely impacts processing.  We want to hear from you that statistics won’t be used to speed up remaining workers and that statistics won’t be used to punish employees failing to meet unreasonable benchmarks.  Additionally, we’d like to hear from you that statistics won’t be used as a measure or justification for further outsourcing.

We believe that the failure to heed these concerns will be a disaster for the libraries and for whoever tries to manage the transition to a new library structure. As people who care about the libraries, we are dedicated to making this discussion more public, and we will continue to document what is taking place in the libraries, to educate the wider community about it, and to organize public forums where that wider community can share its concerns.

We’d like to conclude with some questions for the Transition Team. In doing so, we are aware that–at least up to now–no one who has asked the Transition Team a substantive question has ever received a meaningful answer. We’d like to suggest that you institute a new policy, starting today, of listening to questions and answering them openly:

  • 1) Is the Transition Team considering the possibility of further staff reductions? If not (as we’ve recently been led to believe) the Transition Team should go on record publicly reversing its position, and promising no further staff reductions.
  • 2) Who proposed “shared services” as a model for the libraries and on what basis? What’s the evidence that centralizing processes and services will improve anything?
  • 3) Does the Transition Team intend to physically centralize “shared services” staff? If so, when will it announce its plan so that we can publicly respond to it? If not, why are we being designated as “shared services” and what concrete advantage does this have for the libraries?
  • 4) At what point will the Transition Team start involving the Harvard community in the process of planning and making decisions?


Noah Cohen, Bibliographic Services Assistant, Harvard Law School Library

Karen O’Brien, Technical Services Library Assistant, Harvard College Library

Summer A. Shafer, PhD Student, History of American Civilization

Andrew Pope, PhD Student, History

Richard F. Thomas, George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics and Harvard College Professor

On behalf of Library Forum

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