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veritas Harvard University Library Notes, For Harvard Library Staff, Number 1325 May 2005

Harvard University Library Notes / July 2005 / No. 1326

A Letter from Sidney Verba

Dear Colleagues:

For research libraries, the future is always upon us. As I noted in my annual report for FY 2004, Harvard's libraries are charged with providing ongoing services and building on traditional strengths while, with high levels of forethought and imagination, laying the foundations for the library of the future. Today, the stewardship of Harvard's traditional library resources is counterbalanced by the presence of vast numbers of digital objects which our libraries, first, must acquire, license, generate, or authenticate; second, must deliver to users; and, third, must preserve for future generations.

On June 14, the University Library Council (ULC) gathered for the first of two full-day retreat sessions. Our purpose was to grapple with the highly complex and rapidly changing environment in which we work and to challenge ourselves to develop new ways of thinking about our collections—how they are built, maintained, discovered, and delivered. Our focus was on the role of the University Library, which continues to grow and change.

Our longtime colleague, Judith Messerle, the Countway librarian from 1989 through 2004, served as the ULC's retreat facilitator, guiding the group as it defined and selected priorities within five pre-determined content areas:

  • collections;
  • user needs and services;
  • user behavior;
  • staff development; and
  • leadership in the world.

Organizational factors integral to the five content areas helped to bring our discussions to the tactical level. These factors include finance, governance, communications, human resources, and technology.

Additionally, three key concepts were discussed as principles for future development:

  • the ability to move with agility in a rapidly changing environment;
  • the ability to accept imperfections; and
  • the ability to leverage our assets.

The 16-member ULC divided into small groups representing each of our five content areas. Following extended discussion, each group made and presented a case for its specific content area, offering specific recommendations and resulting, at day's end, in a consensus on our five priorities for the coming year:

Collaborative Collections Strategies

The ULC registered very strong agreement that, as the library environment continues to change, the need is growing for strong University-wide cooperation in collection development. Areas for increased coordination include:

  • reducing duplication (both prospective and in the existing collections);
  • coordinating collection policies;
  • identifying gaps; and
  • examining licensing terms for both external purchases and vendor marketing of Harvard resources.

Improved Access to Resources

We share a growing awareness of our responsibility to make the Harvard collections (in all forms) more visible to potential users. Areas of activity discussed include:

  • extending existing catalogs to cover more "hidden collections";
  • completing retrospective conversion for our catalogs;
  • examining and improving user interfaces; and
  • making efforts to integrate our finding aids and collections in some of the non-library environments frequented by our users (course web sites, school and departmental portals, Google and other web search engines, etc.).

Delivery of Materials—Among the Libraries and From HD

To achieve the maximum benefits of well-coordinated, unified collection across the University, we must make it more convenient for users to access materials spread across our "virtual" collection. Areas of activity include:

  • re-examining the delivery of materials between libraries (or from library to user); and
  • making it possible to deliver HD materials to libraries other than the depositor.

Observing and Documenting User Behavior

Understanding user behavior is critical in a rapidly changing environment. Are old services still useful? Are new services properly designed? While the Harvard libraries have not in general conducted systematic studies of use and users, possible areas of collaborative activity include:

  • use statistics;
  • focus groups;
  • onsite observation; and
  • user (as well as non-user)interviews.

Identifying Significant Trends

How are libraries changing, and what new knowledge and skills will be necessary in the coming years? Keeping our library staff appropriately educated in today's environment requires the monitoring and the understanding of significant new trends. As preparation for new initiatives in staff development and training, the libraries need to develop an inventory of key trends for research libraries around which development programs can be created.

Additional Areas of Interest

Throughout the year, the ULC may address a wide range of other issues as time permits. For example, the ULC showed considerable interest in:

  • comparing the curricular offerings of our leading library schools with the present-day realities of today's research librarians;
  • promoting the library as place;
  • archiving electronic resources according to comprehensive, University-wide standards;
  • evaluating the ULC's committee structure and its decision-making process;
  • collaborating with Harvard's museums; and
  • conducting a Harvard-wide review of cataloging for manuscripts.

Next Steps

The second phase of our retreat is scheduled for September 15. From that all-day meeting, the ULC will generate action plans for each of its priority areas. Once those action plans are in place, I will write to the library community once again to alert you to our progress.

With best regards,

Sidney Verba
Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library


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