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Helen Shenton and Robert Darnton. Photo by Brian Smith.

Helen Shenton and Robert Darnton. Photo by Brian Smith.

British Library's Helen Shenton Is HUL's New Deputy Director

December 11, 2009—The first snow of the year lingers on the steps of Widener Library as Helen Shenton and Robert Darnton make their way back to the University Library Office in Wadsworth House. It's a short three days since Shenton, the head of collection care for the British Library, was named the deputy director of the Harvard University Library. Already, she and Darnton are immersed in issues of library finance, space, organization, consolidation.

Harvard's libraries are buffeted by the winds of change just as Darnton and Shenton are on this turbulent December morning. Taken as a single entity, Harvard's library system is, by any measure, one of the world's greatest. Viewed as the sum total of 73 library units, its traditional strengths have derived from extraordinary levels of response to individual faculties, departments, and programs.

"This is a great opportunity to work with the many excellent professionals both at Harvard and externally, and to be at the heart of strengthening this great library system," Shenton says.

Today, the convergence of economics, technology, and multidisciplinarity have sharpened the focus on Harvardís library system as a single entity. That focus is articulated in unsparing language in a November report from the Provost's Task Force on University Libraries:

In the course of the group's deliberations, it found that a major obstacle for the libraries to overcome would be to move away from their fragmented and outmoded administrative and financial model. Though it was clear from discussions that intellectual matters and collections expertise should be closely tied to the activity of the faculties, it also became clear that the resources of the libraries and the University could be better spent in ways other than preserving a dispersed and overly complex infrastructure.

In appointing Helen Shenton as his deputy director, Darnton identified not only a chief administrator to oversee all of HUL's programs, systems, and planning. Shenton is poised to play a pivotal role on the Implementation Work Group, which Provost Steven E. Hyman charged with acting on the recommendations of the Task Force on University Libraries.

"This is a vital appointment made at a crucial time in the history of the Harvard Libraries," Darnton says. "As the chief steward charged with the care of the vast historical collections in the British Library, Helen Shenton is at the forefront of renewed thinking about libraries, their holdings, and their services. She is a skilled practitioner and an innovative manager. I am counting on her wise counsel and her decisive nature as we act collectively to make our great library even greater."

Shenton may be uniquely suited to her new role.

In 2002, she became the first overall head of collection care for the British Library (BL), where her purview encompasses conservation, preservation, training and research, collection storage, and security for 150 million items, ranging from the Magna Carta to 300 terabytes of digital material. She co-founded the BL's first comprehensive digital preservation team, and she led an innovative collection-management strategic "strand" known as the "Life Cycle" program.

With eleven years of experience on the BL's senior leadership team, Shenton is steeped in collection management, information technology, human resources, and new building projects. She masterminded the BL's new world-class Centre for Conservation and is heavily involved with the BLís new high-density, low-oxygen robotic depository 190 miles from London, into which a half-mile of stock is currently being transferred per day.

Shenton studied English Literature at University College London and trained at the London College of Printing and with the arts and crafts book conservator Roger Powell. She joined the British Library in 1998 after 14 years in the conservation department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where she was responsible for the textiles, paper, paintings, photography, and book disciplines.

She also honed her management skills at the Harvard Business School's Executive Strategy Program this summer.

"I do not underestimate the enormity of the challenges ahead," she says, "but I am very excited at the prospect of joining Harvard University Library at such a key moment to help make the library and information provision even better for students and faculty now and in the future."

Shenton will arrive at Harvard early in 2010.


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