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Harvard University Library

Report of Helen Shenton, Executive Director

Report of the Executive Director


In my initial role as Deputy Director of the University Library and in my current role as Executive Director of the new Harvard Library organization, I have been privileged to see some fantastic examples of collaboration between faculty and library staff and of best practices in general. On one hand, librarians and technologists are working with mind and brain sciences to understand how people will learn in 2020 given revolutionary changes in information, not least from multi-tasking and mobile devices. There are projects to create virtual bookshelves to emulate the serendipity of browsing volume by volume. On the more traditional front, I experienced the buzz of an "open day" at the Weissman Preservation Center that showcased for faculty and staff the intelligent conservation of such diverse objects as satellite photos, Chinese brass rubbings, Renaissance printed books, and autograph manuscripts.

People have asked, "Is everything as you expected, and how is it compared to the British Library?" Well, there are many similarities with my previous environment at the British Library, particularly in issues of scale. At Harvard and the BL, one witnesses two of the largest libraries in the world wrestling with the selfsame issues of relevance in a digital age.

Like all great libraries, we are grappling with the paradoxes of increased openness (think of Google Book Search, the Berlin Declaration, Harvard's Open-Access Policy, the Open Archives Initiative, and much more) and, at the same time, increased closed-ness (from the seemingly simple frustrations of multiple passwords blocking access to the challenges of data security). And we are addressing the challenges of both collecting and connecting; of fulfilling the mission to provide excellence in teaching and research in a format-neutral way.

Harvard's information provision has been described as "digital plus." I have also heard mention of "paper plus." Which all add up to "library plus."

The challenges ahead are enormous. I see the state of the Harvard library system in terms of a medical metaphor. My view of the library corpora is that the patient is very much alive, but the system is not at its healthiest. The recent financial crisis, painful as it was for the library corpora, revealed systemic, underlying health issues.

 As I visit Harvard's many libraries and explore their services, I am witnessing examples of magnificent best practice provided by committed and dedicated staff. I am hearing radically new ways of working to provide 21st-century information and knowledge in partnership with those who research, teach, and learn.

 However, individual excellence and pockets of best practice cannot mask the systemic symptoms identified by the Provost's Task Force Report on Libraries. We must address not the symptoms, but the underlying acute condition of the library corpora. Specifically, the Task Force identified the need to

  • establish and implement a shared administrative infrastructure;
  • rationalize and enhance information and technology systems;
  • revamp the financial model for the Harvard libraries;
  • rationalize the system for acquiring, accessing and developing a “single university” collection; and
  • collaborate more ambitiously with peer institutions.

And the Task Force laid down the principles by which that should be done:

  • The University must lay the foundation for a 21st-century library that can focus its financial and human resources on strategic change and effective responses to evolving academic priorities in a changing information environment.
  • Harvard must embrace a model that ensures access to scholarly materials needed by faculty, students, and other library users, now and in the future.
  • Reforms must invest library resources more effectively in academic priorities.
  • Harvard needs to be a leader in developing alliances with other libraries and cultural institutions in collection development, preservation, and access to information.
  • A critical goal is for Harvard to have an integrated University collection.

I quote these principles in full, because they are shaping our work—and because a return to the status quo of the pre-financial crisis is not an option.

On December 11, 2009, Helen Shenton was named deputy director of the Harvard University Library. Since 2002, Shenton had served as part of the senior leadership of the British Library (BL) and as the head of collection care. Her purview encompassed preservation, conservation, training and research, collection storage, and security for 150 million items, ranging from the Magna Carta to 300 terabytes of digital material. 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.

On December 20, 2010, the newly constituted Harvard Library board December 20, named Helen Shenton as executive director of the new Harvard Library. In her new role, Shenton will be responsible for establishing a coordinated management structure for the libraries that balances the need for School-based decisions regarding patron-facing activities with the need for a more harmonized approach to strategic, administrative, and business processes.