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Robert Darnton on the University Library Council

As this is the last meeting of the University Library Council, I think we might pause for a moment to consider the ground we have covered. We have come a long way.

Looking back over the last half century, it seems clear that Harvard's libraries were caught between two opposed tendencies, the centripetal and the centrifugal. After a long history of decentralization, the pull toward the center began to gather force in 1948, when the University announced a policy of building a single collection around the College Library with Widener at its core. But in 1953, the University leaders shifted to a policy of "coordination by agreement, not command from above"; and in 1978, the Wyatt Commission announced a principle that soon hardened into an orthodoxy: "coordinated decentralization." In practice, that policy reinforced a tendency for faculty libraries to spin off toward the periphery of the system. Each developed its own collections and served its patrons in its own way, drawing financial support from its local dean.

The ULC was founded in April 1970 as a forum for discussing issues that concerned all the libraries, then estimated as "100 units," scattered throughout the University. By 1974, its members included the heads of all the faculty libraries, and it had committed itself to a principle of "long-range planning," which was designed to pull the parts of the system together.

The creation of the Harvard Depository in 1986 as a common, off-site storage facility was a giant first step toward an integrated system. In 1989, HOLLIS (first implemented for some functions in 1985) replaced the microfiche and the card catalogs of the independent libraries, making it possible for users to gain electronic access to the collections as a whole. To coordinate the new, University-wide services, a central administration, HUL (short for Harvard University Library), managed distinct units such the Depository, the Office for Information Systems, the Weissman Preservation Center, and the University Archives.

At its monthly meetings, the ULC agreed on programs created and directed by HUL. These included the Digital Repository Service, the Library Digital Initiative, the Open Collections Program, and more recently the Office for Scholarly Communication and the Library Lab—all of them intended to serve the entire University. The constituent libraries of the ULC financed many of these initiatives from their own funds, and any library could refuse to contribute if it chose to do so. The ULC was therefore constrained by the University's all-pervasive principle of Every Tub on Its Own Bottom. Nonetheless, the changes that are taking place today represent a continuation of the centripetal developments fostered by the ULC.

To describe that tendency as centralization would be misleading. It should be understood as a process of rational integration, one that will respect the excellence and traditions embedded in the local parts of the system but that constitute a decisive break with cooperative decentralization. The ULC showed the way to this change. Now that it is meeting for the last time, we can take the measure of its 41 years of centripetal activity, and celebrate it for a job well done.

Robert Darnton made these remarks at the final meeting of the University Library Council held on January 20.

 

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