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Harvard University Library

Report of Robert Darnton

Report of Robert Darnton


Although it sounds suspiciously like proverbial wisdom, we in the Harvard University Library take it to be true: every crisis is an opportunity.

The crisis hit us hard in 2009: endowment bludgeoned, budgets slashed, morale battered. But we are determined to put adversity to good use. In March, Provost Steven Hyman appointed a Task Force to study how Harvard's 73 libraries could be integrated into a single, cost-efficient system and deliver better service.

73? You ask. The question itself, which comes up constantly in discussions of the library, is an indication of the problem. How can Harvard's libraries function as one if there are so many of them—so many that no one is absolutely sure of their number? I asked the inevitable question on my first day as library director: how many individual libraries constitute the entity known as the Harvard University Library (HUL)? The answers ranged from 40 to 104.

Of course, the numbers game is misleading. It easily gets bogged down in inconsistent definitions of what constitutes a library—a book-lined reading room in one of the thirteen undergraduate houses? One of the ten department collections housed separately inside Widener? One of the six botany “libraries” grouped under Harvard Herbaria? In a university as ancient and complex as Harvard, libraries have become attached to different sectors of the system and they have developed different functions. In order to avoid giving the impression that we cannot keep track of them all, we recently agreed on criteria about collection size, space, and use; and we came up with a number: 73.

The numbers game also points to the reason for the appointment of the Task Force. No one questions the excellence of the librarians at Harvard and the professionalism of their service to Harvard's faculty and students, as well as to researchers who come here from around the world. But the current financial crisis forces us to ask how the disparate collection of (now that we have a number) 73 libraries can be amalgamated into a more efficient whole. The primary task as Provost Hyman defined it was not simply to cut costs but to make a great library greater.

Our main difficulty derives from Harvard's history. The College grew up around its library. It owes its name to the collection of books willed by John Harvard in 1638 to the little academy established two years earlier. As the College evolved, developing new disciplines, departments, and schools, the library spread its roots and grew new offshoots. The growth was organic and served Harvard well in the 19th century, when the College became a research university, and in the 20th century, when the research required a proliferation of special collections. According to Harvard's principle of every tub on its own bottom, the collections fell under the authority of the deans in the separate schools. The deans allocated funds, convinced that a great law school, medical school, business school, divinity school, education school, and school of design could not be sustained without a great library.

But tubs and bottoms do not provide an adequate organizing principle in the 21st century, because books and periodicals cost more than a single school can afford, data are no longer confined to specific disciplines, the entire University needs to be united in a single system for providing access to information, and information comes increasingly in digital form, which requires a new kind of infrastructure. 

When the Task Force took the full measure of these needs, it discovered dysfunctions that had accumulated over the years. As bindings wore out and pages became frayed, separate libraries set up separate conservation laboratories. Some of them developed their own information systems, which turned out to be incompatible with others. They struggled to contain the skyrocketing costs of periodicals, but publishers often got the best of them by a strategy of divide and rule. The latest negotiations to renew a subscription package with one publisher who supplies a wide range of very expensive journals took four months to complete, and it involved 22 libraries, each with its own priorities.

Harvard realized nearly thirty years ago that it could not contain all its collections in the buildings located near the Yard. It created the Harvard Depository (HD), which is located 30 miles west of the main campus. The Depository succeeded so well that it became known as “the Harvard model” and was widely imitated by other research libraries. It now contains 45% of HUL's total holdings. Books are trucked to readers within 24 hours of their requests, and the readers are happy with the service. But the system for financing the Depository has accumulated disincentives since it was first devised. Each Harvard library is deemed to own the books that it purchases from its independent budget and stores at HD. Along with the storage, it pays $2.15 for every delivery to a reader, even though the reader may belong to a different school (or faculty) from the school whose library bought the book. For example, if a member of the Kennedy School wants a book in the Depository that was purchased for Widener Library (Widener is part of the Harvard College Library, which is located in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences), the cost of delivering that book to him or her will be charged to Widener (that is, to the Harvard College Library.) Moreover, the librarian of the Kennedy School, whose library is full to bursting, might hesitate to purchase a book and pay for its storage, if she thinks it likely that the book will be bought by the College Library. Therefore, acquisitions can turn into the bibliographical equivalent of a game of chicken, pitting one library against another.

The Task Force has recommended measures to streamline the system by consolidating services and coordinating collections. That is easier said than done, but it is doable, and an Implementation Work Group will soon set about translating the recommendations into practices. By the end of 2010, we expect to have a new structure for financing the Depository, a new office for masterminding all negotiations with journal publishers, and interoperable technology, which will knit all the libraries into one information network. Meanwhile, we will confront fundamental questions about the organization and finances of all 73 libraries. No one expects them to be amalgamated into a single, pyramid-like structure, and everyone assumes that the new HUL will respect the integrity of its constituent parts; for nothing can replace the intellectual input of librarians whose expertise has nourished the development of particular disciplines.

What may be called into question is the principle of tubs and bottoms. The tubs have been floating off in their own directions instead of pulling together toward a common goal. If the financial crisis has taught us anything, it is that we cannot continue to operate as if we were still in the 20th century. And if I can predict what will happen in the next 12 months, it is that we will take decisive steps toward the creation of a first-rate library for the Harvard of the 21st century.

Robert Darnton is Harvard's Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library. He is the former Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of European History at Princeton. An alumnus of Harvard College and Harvard’s Society of Fellows, a former Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur Fellow, and Chevalier of France’s Légion d’Honneur, Professor Darnton is an internationally recognized scholar on the history of the book and the literary world of Enlightenment France.