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Interview with Malcolm Hamilton

Malcolm Hamilton grew up in Bath, Maine, graduated from the University of Maine at Orono, and taught high-school English in Chelmsford before pursuing his degree in library science at Simmons. He first arrived at Harvard in 1967 as an intern and serials assistant in the library of the Graduate School of Education. In the course of his 35-year career, he has served as librarian for the faculties of divinity, education, and government, and has served the Central Administration as university personnel librarian in HUL. He also worked for a short time at Project ADAPT and as an HR Specialist in the Office of Human Resources. Hamilton is currently the interim librarian of the Andover–Harvard Theological Library. He plans to retire from Harvard once a permanent librarian is chosen for the Harvard Divinity School. Hamilton was interviewed for Library Notes on February 20.

LN
What was your journey from Bath, Maine, to Harvard?

MH
It was an unlikely trip. I come from a family that has long associations with ships. My grandfather went to sea with his father, delivering ice to the Caribbean and New Orleans and bringing back rum, molasses, and hemp. During my University of Maine days, I took a year off to work in the shipyard in Bath. I was a ship-fitter's assistant, learning welding. No one could believe that I would go back to school to be a teacher because I was making more money at the Yard than I would make in my early years of teaching, but I feared being trapped in Bath.

LN
You finished at the University of Maine?

MH
Yes. In English and education. And moved to Chelmsford, Massachusetts, and taught for six years in the high school.

LN
When did you go to library school?

MH
By my last year at Chelmsford, I realized that a high-school career was not going to go anywhere that I wanted to go.

LN
So you went to Simmons. What area of librarianship interested you?

MH
I wanted to be in research and academic libraries. I had worked in the library in the University of Maine, and I found the work fascinating. It was a natural next career for me. Librarianship is rarely a first career choice for anybody. It's a second or third decision. I like to say it is a decision made by mature people. You don't leave high school wanting to be an academic librarian.

While I was at Simmons, a friend of mine suggested that I get into the internship program at Harvard. In those days—before there was the Tuition Assistance Plan [TAP]—the library had an internship program. To be accepted, you had to be going to library school. Harvard paid half of your tuition, and you could have up to seventy-two hours a semester off to attend classes or to study. Unfortunately, many of the interns spent their seven hours a day just filing catalog cards. If the program ever had any relationship to a real internship, where you were guided by a mentor, it rarely happened. My first year at Harvard, I was support staff at the School of Education. I started as a serials assistant.

LN
That was 1967—and there was, as yet, no Gutman Library and Conference Center. Where was the Ed School library?

MH
The basement of Longfellow Hall—and in four other places. The reserve collection was in Byerly Hall. It was about the only thing in Byerly Hall. We stored books in the basement of the Schlesinger. There was a curriculum center in Larsen Hall and one of the research centers, down on Kirkland Street, had its own library. When we opened Gutman in 1972, I was the senior person on the staff with a library degree.

The challenge was to close the old libraries on a Thursday, consolidate the collections together from five locations, interfile the books on the shelves, and open the Gutman on the following Monday morning. We worked all weekend, but we did it on time and under budget.

I stayed at the Ed School until 1980. It took a long time for Gutman, that beautiful building, to be regarded as containing a serious collection within the context of the University. I got to be acting librarian, but Inabeth Miller, who has recently died, was appointed the permanent librarian. She was a whirlwind. She turned the library and the Ed School on its head. It was a great fun ride. She hired Barbara Graham, who arrived on March 1, 1980. I left for the Kennedy School on April 1, 1980. So we overlapped for a month. Barbara likes to say that she used to work for me and later I worked for her. Now I work for her husband. There's been a Graham in my life since 1980.

The Kennedy School was an interesting adventure. I got along very well with Ira Jackson, who was the associate dean. He had a great vision for the school. He and [Dean] "Graham" Allison were moving very fast to create a profession of public policy, so that people who went into the government didn't just happen to pass the civil service test or somehow get the job: they'd have qualifications as professionals. The Kennedy School was a very exciting place. It was small. By the end of the year you knew every student. I think there were 175 then. Now, it's a much bigger enterprise.

LN
Was it during your Kennedy School years that you became involved in human resources?

MH
Yes. In late 1986, Sid Verba asked if I would be interested in working part time for HUL to do some human resource stuff. I thought it was a great idea. At the ULC, I'd been bringing personnel issues to the table, and I had an interest in the labor laws that governed what we do.

LN
What's the genesis of this interest?

MH
As head of two libraries, I found that some of the people I managed had career or job-related problems, some of whom just needed the nod to try to develop their own potential.

I came to Wadsworth House originally to cover the 36 professionals in HUL. And somebody in Holyoke took care of the support staff. Eventually I took on support staff, as well.

LN
But you were still the librarian of the Kennedy School?

MH
Yes. By that time, I had been at the Kennedy School for five or six years. The job was still small, and I needed more scope to what I was doing. And I could do all of it—HUL and the Kennedy School—from one place. So I did the two jobs out of one office. I became what was known as the University Personnel Librarian. Originally that role had been handled by the head of the personnel in Widener, who also took on the few people who worked in the central library administration. As HCL human resources got more complex,it became apparent to everyone in the College Library that they needed their own HR operation totally focused on HCL. And Sid Verba realized that he needed someone to look after people under him. The job also involved an unofficial ombudsman role that was very satisfying to me.

Human resources has really grown up at Harvard. When I first came to the University, HR in the faculties was a clerical function. It meant getting someone on payroll and figuring out how much money we owed for vacation time when staff left. Polly Price [the associate vice president for human resources] and her colleagues have worked hard to professionalize human resources at Harvard. It has been energizing to watch the transition.

When I moved into human resources I immediately felt comfortable because the analogy with librarianship was very dramatic. Both were female-dominated professions. Both are functions of the University that each of the faculties has and that report to their deans, not to a central head of human resources—just as the faculty librarians report to their deans, not to Sid Verba. And both get their jobs done collaboratively through committees.

LN
You have the distinction of having been in charge of three faculty libraries.

MH
I've told Sid that if I keep at this, I'll get it right eventually.

LN
Can you think of any other person in our history who has moved in that way? And also served the Central Administration in several capacities?

MH
No, there have been people who have worked in as many faculty libraries, but not been heads of them.

LN
What's your greatest personal satisfaction?

MH
This may surprise you, especially when I can point to a glorious new library and say that I've helped to make that better. It is the number of troubled people who have come to me for help. Sometimes they would come to use my Kleenex and walk away refreshed—and I had done nothing but let them pour it all out on the table. Others have come to complain about their salaries or the inadequacies of their bosses, when their frustration with the job is because they should have left two years ago. Then we talked about how they could move on—before their anger and bitterness make them unemployable.

LN
How is the world going to change for the libraries here in the next five or ten years?

MH
I can hardly be a sayer of sooths, but that won't stop me from trying.

There will be more digitizing. Somehow digital will become an archival medium. It has to. We cannot continue to put this much money, this many resources, into something that only provides access. Especially when, in a library like the Divinity School's, the preservation needs are just screaming. I don't think for a minute that digitizing is going to reduce the need for libraries. Books will continue to be the core of research in our lifetimes.

One of the things that I think is going to happen is that the buildings we call libraries will increasingly contain only the public services functions. The books will be there—the ones that aren't at the Depository. And the print journals, so long as we have print journals. But I think that technical services, the back-room operations—everything from book ordering to cataloging to end processing—will be done somewhere else. And done more efficiently because it can be consolidated.

The College Library has shown the way, having moved its cataloging department to Central Square. It was a controversial move, but I hear from colleagues that it's a terrific place to work, a much better environment than they had before.

LN
As you prepare to retire from Harvard, what are your thoughts?

MH
It's sort of a spiritual thing. I don't want to get too far down that road, but picture this. I'm walking through Harvard Yard—the old yard—on a crisp fall morning. Trees are golden, the sunlight has turned the brick to a mellow rosy red. And I'm suddenly overwhelmed with the sense of what a privilege it is to work here in this academic community. As cranky as it can be, as frustrating as it can be, it is one of the most extraordinary places in the world to work. Privilege is the only word I can think of.

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Last modified on Wednesday, March 19, 2003.