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Graduate and Professional School Libraries

Schlesinger Library

Schlesinger Library


Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America

Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study

Report of Marilyn Dunn, Executive Director of the Schlesinger Library and Librarian of the Radcliffe Institute


In the spring of 2010 the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study commenced a long-range planning process for the Institute and each of its three program areas, including the Schlesinger Library. A group of library staff, Schlesinger Library Council members, and interested supporters embarked on a process to develop a five-year business plan and to imagine even further into the future. This working group began by revisiting the strategic plan for the library, which, since its approval in January 2007, has served as a touchstone for all of our activities. In a new budget climate with continuing uncertainty, and before launching into a long-range plan, it seemed appropriate to measure the library's progress in meeting the initiatives outlined in 2007. After four months of review and evaluation, the library submitted a long-range plan to Radcliffe Dean Barbara Grosz. The spirit of the long-range-planning group, informed by assessment, is encapsulated in the following excerpt from the new plan.

Mindful of the impending changes within the Harvard University Library, the Schlesinger Library Working Group reaffirms the importance of the library's core historical mission, its key institutional distinctiveness, and the aims articulated in the January 2007 strategic plan. The Working Group is also mindful of the long history of understaffing that has created an extensive collection of unprocessed materials that present problems to researchers and ethical issues for the library.

Additionally, it is imperative that as unique materials become the distinguishing characteristic of library collections, the repositories which house these collections step up to make them fully available in whatever formats are necessary to meet researchers' current and future expectations. The goals of the long-range plan enhance the library's current leadership among libraries collecting in women, gender and society; extend its leadership role in innovative special library technology; and remedy the neglect of the past while focusing on the future of research.

This year's annual report will concentrate on the findings of this assessment effort.

Diversity Initiative

Manuscript Collections

In order to maintain its reputation as the preeminent library for the study of women and gender, the strategic plan developed a diversity initiative. Our initiative was designed to increase the acquisition of collections that document the experience of Latinas, African American and Asian American women and transgendered people. Additionally, we hoped to add to the resources that document low-income women, politically and religiously conservative women as well as American women acting globally.

After two years of effort, 9.5% of all collections align with these categories. We have seen the highest success in diversifying our collections that relate to religious diversity and to women acting globally. We have added very rich collections to those that already document transgendered people and conservative women, but have had less success in developing strengths in ethnic diversity.

Print Collections

Diversifying the print collections required that the curator place more emphasis on materials related to the groups named above and to changing formats that reflect popular culture, such as 'zines and graphic novels. This shift was totally within the curator's power, and substantial success has been achieved. An initial indication of progress in this area is supported by the fact that only 47 pop-culture titles were added 2007; while 238 such titles were added in 2008; and 200 in 2009. Materials within this category of purchase include journals for Latina teenagers and romances and diet guides for Christians.


Funding for additional curatorial staffing in manuscripts and in activities related to diversity must be increased. The library must aim for higher levels of collecting among underrepresented groups. Representing diversity in print collections is progressing well.

Outreach Initiative

In September 2007, Whitney Espich, Radcliffe's former director of communications, completed a plan for library communications and marketing. The plan was intended to provide a detailed road map for success in creating messages to support the initiatives outlined in the strategic plan. A parallel goal was to refresh Schlesinger's image and reputation for young scholars, archivists, and potential donors.

The communication plan delineated four key areas of focus:

  • audience review
  • publications review (content and design)
  • internal communication
  • external communication

A cursory audience review was completed, but it provided only a snapshot of the library's known audience (current library users, current donors, alumnae, etc.). Additionally, a review of the publications of the library—the Schlesinger Library newsletter and The Culinary Times—was also completed. The content of the newsletter was analyzed and articles linked to strategic goals became the norm. Newsletter content is now selected to communicate a key library message, such as diversifying the collections, digital initiatives, or outreach. For budgetary reasons the library's newsletter is now a web-only publication. The Culinary Times has ceased publication since its contents bore little relation to the library's strategic goals.

While there has been measurable progress in both the quality and quantity of coverage of the library in Harvard publications, specifically the Harvard Gazette, more outreach is needed to connect with non-Harvard academic audiences and audiences with the potential to deliver collections that will offer further diversity to library holdings.

The most important feature of a good outreach program is a dynamic and functional web site. As an essential tool for delivering library services, a newly designed web site would allow the library to reach new audiences by leveraging Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and online exhibits and optimizing the use of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Our request to retool the library's web site has been on hold for a frustratingly long time, but we understand that plans are now under way for a new site.


Outreach goals were vigorously pursued until funds and communications support dwindled. Harvard University coverage has improved substantially. Schlesinger must be vigilant about remaining in the mental landscape of emerging scholars and potential collection donors. The newsletter is improved, but ideally would appear in print as well as online. It is essential that the Schlesinger Library web site be revamped and that new forms of communications, i.e., social media, be pursued.

Digital Initiative

The library's goal at the inception of the 2007 plan was to develop a successful program of collecting and making accessible “born-digital” materials and to implement a systematic formatting program to ensure preservation and access. An important related objective is to implement an improved collection management system—for instance, new technology such as the Archivists' Toolkit.

Excellent progress has been made on this initiative, and salient achievements are listed below:

  • A librarian for digital initiatives was successfully hired.
  • With the participation of Schlesinger Library, HUL created a system for archiving born-digital materials, which can now be harvested from the Internet and then described and retrieved through HOLLIS.
  • Schlesinger Library is one of three participating HUL libraries working on the capability to archive e-mail.
  • Our collaboration with Adam Matthew Digital, Travel Writing, Spectacle, and World History, has been completed, and selections from 50 Schlesinger Library collections have been digitized. The collection is now being marketed to other research libraries in a superb digital package.
  • The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Collection has been digitized.
  • The Radcliffe Archives collections are in preparation for digitization.
  • The Archivists' Toolkit is in implementation; further development is bringing the library closer to employing an improved collection management system.


Progress on this initiative has been excellent, but is now in peril as we are without funding for future projects. Creating a funding stream for digital ventures is necessary. The potential for partnerships with publishers is ambiguous as HUL refines its policies on third-party agreements. Much work must be done in analyzing and prioritizing collections for future digitization.

Maximum Access Initiative

The maximum access project is an all-out effort to catalog and process materials that have been waiting in a queue, with little forward movement. This “backlog” of materials includes both published books and serials; all forms of audio-visual materials, including photographs; and manuscript collections. Progress in each format was assessed separately as each format offers distinct challenges.

Published Materials

Cataloging of published materials is right on target, and if the plan continues for the originally stipulated five-year period, there will not be any uncataloged materials in this format. Already every known item that the library owns has a record in HOLLIS, eliminating what has become known as “hidden collections” from the Schlesinger holdings. We attribute this success to the ability to estimate the extent of materials accurately at the onset of the project and the ability to calculate the appropriate staffing required to remedy this problem.

  • Eliminating the backlog in print materials is right on target, and if commitment to the original five-year plan remains, this initiative will be very successful.

Audiovisual Materials

The first step in eliminating the backlog of photos and audiovisual materials was simply to determine the extent of these collections. The known backlog of material was estimated at 4,000 items, but there was thought to be an unknown but significant amount of additional material. A survey was completed that revealed the number to be more in the area of 16,000 items. We also underestimated the amount of this material that was coming in annually. However, using MPLP (“more product, less process”) standards (the current standard of minimally processed but available for research) about 8,000 items were eliminated from the backlog, reducing the revised backlog by 50%. The current rate of processing the remaining, more complex material is approximately 1,700 items per year. This rate indicates that the backlog of audio and visual materials will be reduced by about 60% at the end of the plan period.

  • Limited success indicates that additional staffing is necessary to keep this area from developing truly insurmountable backlogs. In the future we anticipate much larger acquisitions in media than is currently the case or has ever been the case previously.


In 2007, the backlog of unprocessed manuscripts was originally estimated to be 4,460 linear feet. Despite the processing of 1,732 linear feet of first-ranked priority collections and the decision to accept the so-called MPLP standards for 535 linear feet of high-priority collections, the current backlog of 4,316 linear feet demonstrates little gain on the ever-growing backlog of materials. This perplexing problem can be attributed to the following:

  • The backlog grew at a larger rate than estimated (the estimate had been based upon three previous years' growth); there was actually 135 linear feet more material than in the previous two years.
  • In the first 16 months of processing, the average rate of archivists' progress was 63 linear feet per year, while estimates had been based on 100 linear feet per year.
  • Support staff had to be eliminated because of budget constraints.

If current staffing continues and the rate of growth remains, then a little more than 50% of the “Priority 1” backlog collection will be processed during the originally stipulated five-year period. However, if Maximum Access staff is cut and there is a return to previous levels of staffing, there will be a continuous backlog that will be an insurmountable problem for the library. In either case, return to previous levels of staffing will exacerbate the already seemingly intractable problem.


Assuming current practices and full staffing of the Maximum Access Initiative continues for the full period of five years, about 50% of the priority backlog in manuscripts and 60% of backlog in audiovisual materials will be processed by the end of the five-year period, and the print backlog will be eliminated.

It is imperative that the library staff develop ways to expedite processing and to increase productivity in order to decrease backlog in all categories of unpublished materials. We have already set higher expectations for the extent of linear feet each processor is expected to complete in a year. Additionally, it may be necessary to be even more selective in acquiring collections in order to reduce the annual growth in unprocessed materials.

The Conservation Initiative

This initiative remains largely unrealized at present time despite one significant achievement: the hiring of a highly trained and respected conservator. However, the conservator's assessment of our needs, while incomplete, does veer away from the 1999 recommendations made by the Weissman Preservation Center. The conservator's recommendation is that for most of the collection, there is a level of stabilization that is “good enough” and that all of the Weissman recommendations need not be implemented.

The work that has been accomplished in this area is driven by digitization efforts, exhibits, and current purchases that have focused more recently on antiquarian publications in need of treatment. However, an area that has become very problematic is the preservation of what we now know to be large amounts of very valuable audiovisual material. Previously, we made viewing copies of these materials available on demand. In recent years, the number of requests for viewing copies has skyrocketed and can no longer be incorporated into miscellaneous expenditures, as had been the practice. We recommend a substantial investment in digitizing audiovisual materials as they are processed. It will be necessary to have an annual budget line that will provide for digitization of audiovisual materials in the year following the cataloging of a collection.

Conservation staffing was significantly decreased over the previous two years due to elimination of the preservation assistant position and reduction in hours of the conservator, totaling a 70% a reduction in hours devoted to conservation. 


A systematic review and plan for conservation is a necessity. We will turn our attention to this in FY 2012.


Going forward, the Schlesinger Library must be ready to deliver its treasures in electronic formats, because this will be the prevailing environment for research in the future. We will experience a transitional period in which paper collections continue to arrive while more and more arrive in digital formats. We face the following imperatives:

  • to develop capability to manage digital archival material including digital texts, digital photos, and digital audio and video;
  • to become fully capable of archiving electronic mail and web content; and
  • to increase productivity in processing and cataloging, to explore new methods and standards, and to maintain adequate staffing to avoid returning to the pre-plan state of hopelessness about eliminating backlogs.

The long-range planning process was very valuable in requiring the library to reassess its progress and goals in its strategic initiatives. New goals for the remaining period of the strategic plan have been delineated. They include these priorities with respect to the Maximum Access Project:

  • developing varying levels of processing and reserving the greatest level of detail for the exceptional collections;
  • describing all collections at a level determined to be “good enough” and making sure that the collections are stabilized and not subject to deterioration;
  • examining current practices for ensuring third-party privacy; and
  • placing more autonomy and accountability on individual processors, while providing incentives to stimulate progress.