• Harvard University
  • Dot
  • Library Notes
  • Dot
  • July 2010
  • Dot
  • No. 1354
A Letter from Helen Shenton Print
helenshenton.jpgHUL Deputy Director Helen Shenton wrote the following for the Summer 2010 issue of Harvard University Library Letters, which circulates in print to library donors and stakeholders across the University. She shares her text with readers of Library Notes.

Dear Friends,

In my three months at Harvard, 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.

• 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 a personal note, people have asked me, as a Brit fresh off the boat, about the “two countries divided by a common language.” It is not the obvious differences in vocabulary (pavement/sidewalk; lift/elevator; write a cheque/cut a check; put a letter in the postbox/mail a letter; zebra crossing/crosswalk) that have been at issue. It is when the same word is used in English and in American with the opposite meaning—and no outward clue. So, when a colleague said a piece of work had been “quite helpful,” I did not know that he meant “very." To me, “quite helpful” means barely helpful. In fact, it would be damning with faint praise.

Linguistic adventures notwithstanding, it is a pleasure to be settling in. When I realized that all of the network drives on my Harvard computer contained "sox1"somewhere in the address, it became clear that I was really living in the Boston area.

With best regards,

Helen Shenton
Deputy Director
Harvard University Library