Libraries: The Real Carpenter Report*


I felt very honored when the Executive Committee of the Assembly asked me to address the Assembly on this occasion, and I feel even more honored that so many colleagues came to hear me.

At the same time I realize you might be here because of the provocative title. It is the brainchild of a colleague in Widener who is especially good at coming up with titles. It was she who on another occasion, when I was preparing a talk on libraries and gender, came up with the title, "Do libraries have sex?"

This talk, with the subtitle, "The Real Carpenter Report," refers, of course, to the Ad-Hoc Committee’s Report of 1995: Moving the Library Toward Harvard’s Fifth Century. Although that report was the product of a committee, consisting of Jeff Horrell, John Hostage, Suzanne Kemple, Carrie Kent, Martha Mahard, Bridget Reischer, and Alan Seaburg—sensible people all—it was, so to speak, baptized, or mis-baptized, by many as "the Carpenter report."

This talk is, in contrast, truly a Carpenter report. It’s one individual’s. Indeed, it is not exclusively about Harvard, because much of what I will say relates to libraries generally. This talk will also be a bit more personal than might otherwise be appropriate, because, of course, I’ve been asked to speak in large part because my long career here officially ends with the coming of the New Year, at which point I will be entering into another stage of life.

This occasion does prompt me to think about my years here since September of 1959. I’ve never had a senior administrative position in the Harvard Library. In fact, almost all of my jobs have been basically at the margin in one sense or another. This may have been to the benefit of the library, for I was content to be an intermediary between libraries and publishers or, more recently, to be an intermediary between the library and the faculty in working on storage selection. It was in my first Harvard position--reading room and stack attendant, "stack boy," if you will, in the Houghton Library--that I was probably least on the margins. Stack attendants in Houghton are truly indispensable.

During the forty-one years that have passed since 1959, there has been one other thread running continuously throughout my career here. Ever since the day I interviewed at Houghton, I’ve had a powerful sense that this place matters . . . a lot. In part this is because of the collection. I saw some of it during that interview. They wanted me for the job in Houghton because I knew some Russian, at a time when it was a quite exotic language. Houghton had a collection of Russian literature for which tags needed to be typed. So I was shown the books, and I remember taking from the shelves first editions by Dostoyevski, Gogol, Tolstoi, and eighteenth-century books too, and, in fact, the unique copy of the first book printed in Russia. Moreover, many of these contained the bookplates of the tsars.

Then I began to work with the collection, and as I pulled books for readers, I found myself putting before them the original manuscript of works such as Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, or handwritten letters by Longfellow, or German pamphlets from the Reformation, or beautiful eighteenth-century Italian books. Much later, when I helped buy such materials, particularly when I bought for the Kress Library, it never ceased to amaze me that I could still find good material to add to a collection of early economic literature that was already without peer.

I have never lost my awe for the books and manuscripts, as individual items, and, even more my awe of them in their entirety. This library represents to an unbelievable extent the surviving record of the past. Here the past lives—or is made to live again by those studying the collections. And this place matters most because of the use that is made of these collections.

I have never ceased to count it a privilege to serve, work with, and know those who make use of the materials. Some of the most satisfying times in my life were the periods when we had fellowship programs over in Kress in the 1970s—for young American scholars and for Europeans. I witnessed many people joyfully making discoveries in our collections. "Joyful" is really what it was; I’m not exaggerating. Those who received our very small grants went on to write books themselves. One of these scholars returned to Harvard recently as a visiting professor. Another became minister of finance in Italy. So I can say to you that in my work here, I’ve always worked with books, I’ve always worked with those who use the books, and I’ve always taken great pleasure in both.

Because of the combination of the two, however, some have thought (and expressed) that I really didn’t want to be a librarian, that I wanted to be a faculty member. They truly had it wrong. I have long appreciated the joy of being a librarian, but I have never felt that that should deprive me of the joy of being a scholar also. I’ve not yet accomplished all that I have wish to as a scholar, let alone a librarian, but as a scholar I will have my chance, finally, for an extended research leave on January 1, as I enter into the next phase of my career.


In the face of the transition, I look back, and I also look ahead at the nature of the library that I will henceforth visit solely in the role of scholar. As one-time librarian, a scholar, a library user, how would I like the Harvard Library to be different? In what way might it be greater? Can it possibly BE greater?

It can’t be much greater in collections, although before anyone here faints at my saying that, let me assure you that there is always more to do to build collections. Even the greatest can be intelligently filled in. Just to give a few modest examples (lest you suspect I’ve lost my zeal for materials): Because of increasing scholarship being carried out on the history of the book, this library could usefully do more to fill in eighteenth and nineteenth-century book-reviewing journals. And of course, non-print media could be collected more intensively. Neither are our holdings on Africa comparable to many others. . . . You get the idea. There is always more to do with collections.

But outstanding research collections have long been a mainstay of this library’s vision, at least since the beginning of the last century, when its aim became very grand: that of serving the nation. And that has indeed been the role this library has played since. Look at the plaque in the lobby of Widener, just to your right after coming up the front steps. It is placed there in honor of Archibald Cary Coolidge, and it bears the inscription: "Non sibi sed nobis sed patriae." I am told this translates as, "Not for himself, but for us and for the nation." It’s our great collections to which this refers.

No one, however, has really ever tried to bring library services up to the same level. It could possibly be argued that there was not a similar, pressing need to provide service as there was to build the collections. After all, the reference material—most else in fact, was readily visible. The need is now present, and I liken the current situation to that with respect to other activities. One by one other library activities have become programmatic. Building collections really was not explicitly so until 1859, when a gift was made of $5,000 for five years, with the donor specifying that it be spent on currently published materials. Before 1859, collection building was ad-hoc. So, too, was cataloging. Hard to imagine, but true. Before the mid nineteenth century, cataloging here was a one-off library activity, not a programmatic one, with a catalog being made, either in manuscript or print.

Other library functions continue to be added to the programmatic—or institutionalized—functions of the library. Most recently, during Sid Verba’s tenure, preservation of the collections – has become one of those essential, programmatic tasks

Services, though, in the sense in which I am going to speak of them, are just beginning to be programmatically developed, and I am going to try to paint a picture of services in which this library is a pioneer and a leader nationally—just as it is in its collections, just as it was in the retrospective conversion of the card catalog, and just as it is in preservation.

I know of just one vision for an enlarged library role that has nothing to do with collections. This was articulated by William S. Learned, an official of the Carnegie Corporation who in 1924 published The American Public Library and the Diffusion of Knowledge. Learned notes that libraries really have just two main functions: the advancement of knowledge and the diffusion of knowledge. He called for the programmatic diffusion of knowledge. He argued that the massive amount of information makes "imperative some means of selection, digest, or abridgement whereby any one who needs them may gain possession of essential facts without delay and without discouraging or prohibitive effort." He urged that libraries be a "Community Intelligence Service," the basis of which is personal service, best utilized in person. He saw the library as ideally suited to this function. However, to help those engaged in providing that personal service throughout the country’s libraries he urged that the American Library Association supply libraries with authoritative information.

Can this vision be translated into a university setting? I think it can be, but that it requires the systematic development of both a vision and of a body of librarians who will be a national resource. Of course, there have been—and are now-- such people in the library. For various reasons, I will use only past examples. Someone in this library, here in the U.S., not the UK, compiled the basic bibliography of English books before 1640. Another Harvard librarian compiled a guide to the sources of business information that went through edition after edition, and Baker Library, as a library activity, started several decades ago a guide to basic business literature, to a Core Collection, which continues to be updated and to serve other libraries. The massive bibliography of American legal literature is by a longtime staff member here. The census of medieval manuscripts was updated here. The basic descriptive bibliography of leading American authors was compiled in Houghton. In other words, in all of these instances, Harvard librarians and libraries became national resources helping other librarians and libraries to serve better. And, in a somewhat different but related fashion, there are now and long have been people here at Harvard who have played crucial, pivotal roles in the development of national and international cataloging practices.

There are librarians who now carry out comparable activities, which means, in this highly electronic era, the organization of and dissemination of information and scholarship over the web. Teaching, publishing, providing individual in-depth research consultations — these sound very much like the activities urged by Learned. Some of these people are resources for others beyond Harvard Yard. Precisely what their activities are, and how they influence scholarship depends, of course, on the field and its needs. Maps, environmental literature, Judaica, Reformation history, state documents: these are all very different.

But this notion has behind it the fundamental understanding that the librarians are very able, that they are supported, and that expectations for being of widespread service are systematically developed.

One might say: this is what the library now expects, and that is certainly partially true. Yet, a programmatic approach is not yet, I believe, fully carried out— not throughout all the libraries of the university. Librarians are described, as "knowledge navigators," by the new Chief Executive of the British Library, but the need is to develop the concept, to spell out the characteristics of the people wanted to be these "knowledge navigators," to find the best possible people, and to support them. (They would not, I should perhaps add, by any means all be in what we now call "public services.")

So, what would a systematic approach to excellence look like? Conversely what are the obstacles to having the best possible staff performing at the highest possible level?

Libraries are in some sense living entities, and as such, they have an inherent need to change; but they don’t necessarily do so. That Harvard’s did, and that it developed into one of the great research libraries of the world, and certainly the largest university library in this country, is no accident.

People lay behind these necessary, positive changes. People, cultural influences, and of course money, shape library development. Göttingen, the greatest university library of Europe in the eighteenth century--is that no longer—and neither, one might add, does the name of the university fall trippingly from the tongue. Closer to home, the Boston Public Library, once a research library as well as a collection for popular reading—a library that was once one Harvard could rely on for research purposes—no longer serves as a research library for current material on a broad scale. The Peabody Institute in Baltimore, formerly a major research library in this country—on which Johns Hopkins relied—no longer exists as a separate research library. Many of the state university libraries, once well funded, are shadows of their former selves.

I am reminded that the fundraisers for the Harvard Campaign found that even potential major Harvard donors did not understand that libraries differ in kind and character, that they are not all like the public library. In other words, libraries were basically invisible to these people; and if that is the case, then librarians are even more invisible, if I might be forgiven for saying that something can be more invisible than invisible. The fact is, librarians are usually taken for granted.

And, alas, when librarians are thought of at all, it seems that many of those in positions of authority believe that the job does not require much. After all, most of the staff the public sees in a library are those charging out books or reshelving them. Moreover, historically librarianship has been an occupation in which the duties were in fact charging out books, keeping account of what was charged out, shelving and reshelving books. Even today in many college libraries the faculty make almost all the decisions about what books to buy. And cataloging is a special case, in that almost no one besides catalogers understand what catalogers really do, let alone the complexity of it--at least in the case of large catalogs with enormous files in which books can easily be lost.

Then, too, it tends to be felt that the essence of creative librarianship lies in making the big decisions. Think also of the last few decades here at Harvard: adopting the Library of Congress classification, moving to on-line catalogs, gaining the Corporation’s support for conversion of the catalogs, gaining its support again for the Library Digital Initiative, undertaking the renovation of library buildings, raising funds. Those are, in fact, all decisions that have been made at the senior management level. And good senior managers are indispensable.

But—of course, there’s a but--it is others who shape much of the ongoing work of the library. It is others who creatively build those collections to serve scholarship and teaching. It is others who catalog books efficiently and well. It is others who develop special catalogs for visual materials and for manuscripts. It is others who prepare well and teach library classes effectively. It is others who provide intelligent reference service. In other words, excellence is needed throughout the organization at all levels. Managers can always place bodies in library positions, but the results will show eventually.

So, visibility, a true picture of what librarians do, a proper appreciation that the excellence of a library requires excellence throughout the organization—these are part of that list of what underlies excellence in service. And, if the sole goal is really outstanding collections, the crucial role of the builders of the collections tends to get lost. It tends to be assumed that money is the answer. Perhaps that is why the excellent report going to the Dean from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Library Committee does not specifically mention hiring and retaining outstanding librarians as being among the major challenges.

Money is also a component necessary to excellence. Sometimes librarians have been inadequately compensated by sheer inadvertent inattention. For example, prior to Sid Verba’s tenure as Director of the University Library, the compensation of Harvard librarians was allowed to drift down to 59th among university libraries in this country. Sid Verba corrected that.

Money is not, however, something that librarians have talked a lot about. It’s as if we were all Down East Yankees--which we are not. Money certainly was not talked about when the Ad-Hoc Committee report was produced in late 1995. We did in-depth interviews of librarians, and few people mentioned money. Would that be the case today? I suspect that money could loom larger among the concerns.

If one were to take apart the question of money, there are several aspects to consider. There’s the amount relative to librarians’ pay in other institutions. It has frequently been said that the Harvard library aims to be right in the middle of our peer group, that is, seventeenth. I think I’ve quoted that figure correctly, but perhaps it’s fifteenth or nineteenth.

But really? We have thirty-four peers among university libraries? And the Harvard Library is right in the middle of them with respect to collection size, collection expenditures, rank of the university? I’m afraid I can’t see the rationale for our being seventeenth in librarian salaries, especially given the cost of living in this part of the country. Surely, it limits the recruitment pool on which the library can draw.

But, of course, money is more complicated than just our rank with respect to librarians elsewhere. How does it compare with what others are being paid? Is it attracting the people we want? What does the money buy now, in comparison with other points in time? I am in way over my head in talking about money, but my point is merely that salary determination is so complex an issue that it needs to be looked at—again and again—and often again and again.

Doing so is in fact beneficial. Thus, the retirement program has recently been improved, and that’s a great step. It restores in this area an equality with the faculty that once existed. I wish the university would also examine the way salary increases are handled. I find it odd that most of us support a graduated income tax—at least on the federal level--but that no one seems to question the principle of everyone here being given the same percentage increase in salary, which means that the person making $100,000 gets twice as much as the person making $50,000. Of course, the result is that the gap widens.

If money is difficult for me and other librarians to talk about, so is status. One year ago this week--there died suddenly a book selector in Widener who had built the collection for many, many years, a person who had made a great contribution to the library. The Harvard Gazette, I was told, would not publish a notice of her death. And, the word around the library was that the Gazette had a policy of not publishing on the death of others than faculty. That has obviously changed since then—I’ve seen such articles—but it hurt—and it is symptomatic of low status.

Also symptomatic is the litany in the Gazette and other communications: "Faculty, students, and staff." This lumps in the Harvard librarian, perhaps a national leader, with___ Let me tell you how a colleague put it recently: he feels librarians are seen as the "hired help." I don’t want librarians to be elevated at the expense of others, but let me make it clear. Librarians have, in a sense, been demoted. After World War II, thanks to Paul Buck, who had been University Provost, librarians were made Officers of the University, and there were two classes of officers, Officers of Instruction and Officers of Administration.

To consider something more intangible than money and status, I think that an obstacle to a programmatic approach to excellence in services and the staff who provide them is the increasing decline of the vision of the research library. It is as if years of budget cutbacks in research libraries have made librarians willing to accept their loss. The collections of university libraries are increasingly resembling a version of the undergraduate library, and the research library aspiration may be being lost. Today, to show that libraries are useful, the target audience of web sites is made broader through lowering the level. Thus, the American Memory project of the Library of Congress, is for K through 12. What starts out being tactical can become the dominant approach.

It will be all to easy to populate research libraries with people who basically do not know research libraries, who confuse a research library with an undergraduate library or a public library. After all, those are library types we all know. A range of consequences follows from whether one has as a model the college library or the research library. I hope that those responsible for this library will always see it primarily as a library in support of scholarship.

What I perceive as a diminished sense of purpose in libraries is related to Robert Putnam’s "Bowling Alone." He might also have written "Working Alone." To some extent this is inevitable in libraries. "Librarian" is a term that encompasses all kinds of people, and increasingly there are many others who work in libraries who are not librarians, many of the technical people, for instance. Not only are there many different kinds of us in libraries, we often do not basically know what the other person does; such is the complexity that has become librarianship. But I worry about this declining sense of community. To be sure, that sense of common purpose has not been universal at Harvard at any point, though some libraries at some points in time have had it. The question of identity is, of course, being magnified many times over by the move of catalogers from Widener to Central Square—identity not just of those who are moving but of those who are being left behind.

I would like this sense of community, of pride, if you will, to come about through a common sense of high purposes and through delight in the excellence of one’s colleagues. Excellence needs to be the watchword. No one should hire someone who does not challenge them professionally. A respected colleague told me that that is her practice. Never, she says, hire someone because of a sense that the person is easily managed. So perhaps the nature of the hiring process needs to be reviewed. How well do we really do at finding the best? What messages does the process send to candidates?

I could touch on many other matters affecting the ability of the library to hire, retain, and have people functioning at a high level in the provision of services. But, enough! I’ve done so to this extent in part to show an awareness that the task of developing excellence is indeed complex. It requires systematic planning at all levels.

One might say, why do it? After all, you yourself, Ken, say that there are lots of highly competent people here.

It’s necessary because, unfortunately, highly talented librarians may be harder to find in the future. It has been argued that libraries in this country are better than they deserve to be, because librarianship has been able for a special reason to attract in sufficiently large numbers individuals of great talent. This argument was made in the preface to the most important study ever undertaken of librarians, as part of the "Public Library Inquiry.". Carried out by social scientists under the auspices of the Carnegie Corporation, the volume on librarianship (Alice I. Bryan, The Public Librarian) was published by Columbia University Press in 1952.

Let me quote from it (p. 436):

"Historically, the high quality of library service in relation to very modest salary rewards may be due in large part to the real opportunities for advancement and administrative leadership that librarianship offered women as compared with other occupations open to them."

In other words, libraries could rely on employing a group of people who did not have very many other opportunities. I think there is another group that did not very many other opportunities, at least for working in an environment of more or less acceptance, and that is gay men. Since women tend to be less homophobic than men, the presence of large numbers of women created a positive environment for gay men. Gender can be easily documented; sexual orientation, less so; but that same report does provide some data (p. 38). It notes that the percentage of women librarians who said they had no wish to marry was one third; the percentage of male librarians was 54.

Now, I am not saying that women or gay men are better librarians than straight men. Let me be very clear about what I am saying. I am arguing that librarianship has been able to draw from a portion of the population that historically had few other career opportunities, at least in a relatively non-hostile environment. (I happen to think that librarianship, with its connotations of being cultural work, has also attracted a lot of people who were the first in their family to go to college.)

In recent years, society has changed to a sufficient extent that women have much greater employment opportunities. And, thankfully, homophobia is declining or, at least, it is ever more socially unacceptable to reveal—and revel—in it.

Moreover, no other groups have to my knowledge found librarianship to be particularly congenial. In some sense the society may have become more just. The educated African-American has other opportunities. Will librarianship be seen by Hispanic Americans and other minority groups to be a field of particular opportunity? I doubt it and that’s positive for the society.

Libraries, doesn’t it seem logical, are now and increasingly in the future going to have to compete—directly--with occupations in which people have both more prestige and more money—and on terms of prestige and money.

And the competition is not just with business and the traditional professions. Check out the web for historical societies, and you will see that they have proliferated. And lots of them have curators, and many provide opportunities for creative work in an atmosphere encouraging entrepreneurial initiative.

There are signs that libraries may well lose out in the competition. Quite apart from the "anecdotal evidence" of talented individuals who, after working a bit in a library, move on, it does seem pretty obvious that PhDs who are not getting jobs in academia are not automatically flocking to librarianship. (I am not saying that they necessarily would make good librarians, only that they are not interested in librarianship.)

Indeed, I think there are signs that libraries are already losing out. You see, I sometimes use other libraries, and think I’ve seen the future. I’ve asked questions in other libraries and found that the reference librarians there had no knowledge at all of a particular body of material. I’ve asked for assistance at other libraries only to be routed to another person, and another, and another, who sent me back to the person with whom I had started. I have called for books in closed-stack libraries only to have a third of them be unlocated.

You see my fear: that despite improvements, the university will not move sufficiently quickly and systematically into a new programmatic mode with respect to services and personnel. I worry it will be said that the function of the library is just to serve the Harvard community. Excellence will be sacrificed. It is no accident that the most active research libraries in recent decades have been the members of the Independent Research Libraries Group—places like the American Antiquarian Society, the Morgan Library, the Newberry Library. They have aimed beyond a local constituency. Isn’t the operative imagery something such as: To hit the target you have to aim above it.

The kind of program described here will certainly not be carried out quickly. There has been some progress, but the issues are terribly complex. They also cannot be dealt with in an adversarial fashion. It may be, though, that the impetus for a change in library services and personnel that is truly consonant with the changing world will have to come from outside libraries. Perhaps university libraries need something such as the National Research Council report on the Library of Congress.

And I hope that librarians outside of senior management will also continue the conversation that Provost Harvey Fineberg called for in his opening remarks. Your point of view has validity. It is a truism that where one sits determines one’s view of the world. It used to be that white, Christian, heterosexual men thought that their view of the world, their view of truth, their perception of relationships was universal. That’s not true, and that view should certainly not be replaced by one that in effect says any one group within the institution has a monopoly on what is best for the organization, that with – or without -- power goes wisdom. Neither is it true that only those in leadership positions have the interests of the institution at heart.

I know that lots of librarians -- you folk out there—care very much about the library, that a lot of you are not just doing jobs. A lot of you take joy in what you are doing—and are committed to Harvard. Try to keep alive the idea that underlying an excellent library are excellent librarians throughout the library. Make sure that the conversation continues.

Kenneth E. Carpenter


* This is a slightly edited version of a talk given at the Librarians’ Assembly on November 9, 2000. It was written for oral delivery, and no effort has been made to transform it into written discourse.

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