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Harvard College Library-Report of Nancy M. Cline

Building the Collections: Challenges and Opportunities

Building the Collections


“I’m very glad, and in a way proud, that all the boxes arrived in good condition. You see I had these boxes specially made from a factory located on the outskirts of Lahore. I found the owner to be a very pleasant industrialist with a fondness for gardening, as was evident by his well-kept park within his office compounds. After much deliberation on the quality of boxes over cups of tea and lemon squash, as well as an engaging conversation on mysticism, he proposed that he was going to make something that will stand the test of time. For a minute I was nervous, but sensing his zeal, I agreed, and hence the strong square boxes!”

This delightful vignette came to us from one of our vendors in Pakistan, Irfan Khan of IMK Books, in an e-mail commenting on a shipment sent to the Library. Mr. Khan’s description of the painstaking process of negotiating over specially made boxes in which to ship the collections is a metaphor for the process the Library engages in to build the collections, whether it be through negotiating with a vendor for large journal packages, bidding for a manuscript at auction, or establishing an approval plan with a new vendor. The bibliographers must put their faith and trust in the deals they make with the holders of the content we seek on behalf of Harvard. Sometimes, we are disappointed in that process, as when Fine Arts Library’s Russian book vendor went out of business or when receipts from the Sub-Saharan African Section’s major approval vendor inexplicably declined by one-fourth. Such are the challenges of international collections. Yet, we press on to fulfill our collections needs in other ways, through alternate means, such as finding a new shipper for our vendor in Ramallah so that shipments can be received in a timely manner rather than waiting what had been six months for delivery. The Library’s goal remains the same as that of the box maker—“to make something that will stand the test of time,” collections that will not only inform scholarship today but endure for the future.

Complicating the Library’s ability to acquire collections and content are inflation, the continued weakness of the dollar in international markets, increasing publishing output, shifts to digital formats, increasing local academic and research needs, and stretched acquisitions budgets. Bibliographers continue to be challenged to make the best use of the finite resources at their disposal. This past year, the Library was fortunate to receive two one-time allocations from the Dean’s Office totaling $650,000 providing some funding relief, but means do not yet exist to adequately address structural weakness in the collections budgets.

As the information marketplace evolves and changes so do the means by which the Library seeks to acquire collections and content. HCL’s bibliographers employ diverse and creative means by which to secure the collections needed for teaching and research at Harvard. Bibliographers in Widener Library have found the online marketplace, eBay, to be a reliable means to discovering and acquiring diverse research materials. The Middle Eastern Division has found a number of scarce and uncommon older Armenian and Armeno-Turkish works among the offerings on eBay, where the unit has managed to locate a number of vendors for such valuable yet “under-the-radar” materials. eBay has proved to be a source for rare Arabic titles, too—especially from the Arab American community. These included al-Yamīyah al-mu‘īdah (“Arabic diary”) published in Montral in 1921; Dalīl al-Nahat al-‘Arab lil-mughtaribīn (“Nahat al-‘Arab directory for immigrants”), issued by the Detroit newspaper Nahat al-‘Arab in 1951; and al-Durrah al-Ghnimah fī al-Ḥarb al-Kawnīyah (“The Ghanimiyah jewel on World War I”), printed in New York in 1922.

A sabbatical spent in part in Pakistan brought something of a windfall to the Library’s South Asian collections last year. While on leave from his appointments as Assistant Professor of Islamic Studies and of the Study of Religion M. Shahab Ahmed selected, on behalf of the Middle Eastern Division, some 1,500 books and periodicals, chiefly in Urdu, for acquisition. Titles such as these would not be included among receipts from our participation in the Library of Congress (LOC) Islamabad’s cooperative acquisitions program. South Asian Muslim authors writing on a range of topics in Islam today are well represented in this set. Many of the works come out of madrasahs or religious presses whose publications are not commonly seen in the West; very few if any of these titles can be found in OCLC. Thus these acquisitions are an excellent complement to the wealth of vernacular-language material supplied through LOC’s active program. Moreover, they will be more than merely incidental in supporting the University’s aims for teaching and scholarship on South Asia. The Library is immensely grateful to Professor Ahmed for his efforts to help us acquire these important collections.

Providing access to digital content for our users remains a priority for the College Library, and many resources require licensing arrangements that are complicated by intense negotiations with vendors, increasing prices, and the need to coordinate across the expanse of Harvard’s decentralized libraries for shared resources. The e-resource marketplace presents complex options, and there is little opportunity for libraries to negotiate long-term, favorable prices. The internal alignment of funding from Harvard’s many libraries further complicates negotiations. Some vendors have adopted standardized license language and transparent pricing schemes. Others insist on arbitrary terms, make excessive price changes, and alter the business models underlying their offerings, thus requiring time-intensive, individualized reaction on the Library’s part. A case in point was the recent negotiation over Thesaurus Linguae Graecae, for which there was a sudden increase in fees from $7,000 to $50,000 for renewal of the five-year subscription. Access to this database is critical, as it provides access to resources for core teaching and research needs at Harvard. Thus, our response was to renew, however, under strong and very public protest.

In another area of e-resource acquisitions, the Library has an increasingly important role in our engagement in cooperative programs. We participate in and co-sponsor many cooperative initiatives, e.g., CRL’s global resources projects and its World News Archive, the next phase of the Text Creation Partnership’s mark-up project for Early English Books Online, and co-development work with publishers in the East Asian e-resource realm, to name just a few. Although unlikely to save considerable money, these partnerships give us the ability to enhance the resources and services that we are able to provide to our users.