A summary of comments by Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library, at two all-staff meetings on September 19, 2013.
September 24, 2013—Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library, addressed staff in Askwith Hall on September 19, 2013 to introduce herself and plans for the direction of the Harvard Library. She also welcomed questions from the audience and said she would do her best to answer any questions submitted via email as well. Thomas said she would like to have at least one all-staff meeting per semester, or two or three times per year, as she welcomes the opportunity to engage Library staff members directly in a face-to-face dialogue. Some of these meetings will have a component of information, she said, but she also likes the “give and take” of hearing what’s on staff members’ minds and a chance for her to speak informally in a way that is candid and conveys more that one can read in an email. Another benefit to these meetings is that staff members who don’t regularly interact with each other can come together to form a community.
Thomas asked members of the audience to name topics colleagues would like her to address. Items mentioned were:
- digital collection building (see an October 15 update from Fransizka Frey)
- the campaign (see a September 24 update from Sarah Thomas)
- new skills coming into the library
- new services the library will offer
- staffing levels at 625 Mass. Ave. (see an October 8 update from Scott Wicks)
- skilled language subject catalogers (see an October 8 update from Scott Wicks)
- Affinity Groups
- research data
- the continuing transition
- understaffing in Access Services
- obstacles to innovation
- cultural division between local and shared services
- communication between local and shared services
- a Harvard Library culture
- professional development/advancement opportunities
- increased workloads
Thomas also read questions previously submitted by staff members about:
- her professional history and biography
- the meaning of her title
- strategic issues and plans for staff development
- her plans for innovation within the Harvard Library
- her ideas about the “One-Harvard” goal—and ideas to rectify the bifurcated administrative systems
Thomas continued, saying she grew up a small town in western Massachusetts called Haydenville, noting that the small library in Haydenville was open only on Fridays, and every week she visited and borrowed 10 books. Thomas went to Smith College, where her first job was pasting book plates in the Margaret Sanger Collection, which had been donated to the library. She observed that the job had a profound impact on her—Sanger was one of the first proponents of birth control, and as Thomas worked with this collection, it was still illegal in Massachusetts for unmarried women to take birth control.
While working at Smith’s library, she noticed the tremendous backlog of uncatalogued books. She asked the head of technical services if it was stressful to have such a backlog. The response? “Oh, no. You get used to it!” Thomas said she never became used to it.
Her first job after graduation was as a preliminary cataloger at Widener Library to help pay rent for her summer sublet in Cambridge. There, she had the—now obsolete—task of alphabetizing cards and filing them in the Official Catalog. At the time someone asked if she was interested in attending library school. Her response? “No! How dull!”
But then she thought: Widener is nice—there were poets, silversmiths; a good community and very interesting work. She was in the process of applying to law school, but decided to attend Simmons, taking all of her classes on Tuesdays since Harvard gave her some time off to support her studies. The University also subsidized her education. Thomas became a cataloger for German materials, later becoming the head of departmental library cataloging—and wiped out a backlog of 1000 books in only a year. At the time, computers were new to libraries, and she was asked to head the computer-based cataloging section in Widener.
From her post at Widener, Thomas moved onto Johns Hopkins to earn an MA in German Studies, aspiring to be Widener’s German bibliographer. She enjoyed her studies, and decided to earn a PhD.
As her studies ended, Thomas applied for an opening with Research Libraries Group (RLG) in Stanford, CA. She was picked up at the airport in a green MG and taken out for drinks. She thought, “I want to move to California!” RLG formed to help bring libraries together, and it was while working there that Thomas’s strong belief in library collaboration began. Thomas traveled across the US working with research libraries on shared access, shared cataloging, shared resources, and shared preservation. Her next job was at the National Agricultural Library as head of technical services—in part because Washington DC was a good place for her and her husband to live together and both have good careers. When she researched the library, a guidebook boasted that it was home to the Poultry Hall of Fame. She was surprised that the pictures on the walls weren’t of famous chickens—rather of famous people, like Frank Purdue. Though the subject matter was not her natural area, she said it was a unique opportunity and one of the highlights of her career because of the professional challenges it offered.
Thomas next became director for of cataloging at the Library of Congress. While there, she was asked to serve as the acting director public services and special collections, earning experience in different library functions.
Thomas was then recruited to join Cornell as university librarian; enamored of the campus and its libraries, she thought she’d retire there. A recruiter’s email brought her to the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, which she joined as Bodley’s Librarian, the first non-Brit in that position in more than 400 years.
Thomas summed up her biography by saying that it was interesting how she had started at the lowest rung on the ladder in Widener Library—only to return to the same institution as the head of its library system. Her previous jobs in a series of complex institutions were good preparation for her position at Harvard—all libraries are moving in the same direction, with the same models of integration and the same emphasis on bringing different cultures together.
Thomas then shared details on her activities during her first six weeks in her new role. She has visited many of Harvard’s libraries already, and she hopes to visit Dumbarton Oaks on an upcoming trip to DC, and would also like to visit Biblioteca Berenson in Florence.
She said, “I am having a terrific time seeing diversity of libraries, space, cultures and people and taking pictures.” At the Harvard Kennedy School, she met Keely Wilczek and Leslie Donnell, and learned about their project digitizing course materials. There is “a lot of clever work going on, a lot of innovation in customer service orientation, which I like.”
She ventured into the bowels of Widener to meet with Franziska Frey’s digital imaging group. Addressing the suggested topic of digital collection building, Thomas said she assumed that meant both digitization of current collections, acquiring new collections and also republishing and linking to external collections. Thomas commented that when you have an increasingly mobile population of both faculty and students, libraries need to accommodate to meet those demands. Access to collections must be 24/7 and that the Library should be able to provide support wherever it’s needed, and digital collection-building is a critical way to do that.
At Tozzer, she met Linda Carter, Cynthia Hinds and Janet Steins, and observed that Tozzer is navigating a “double transition” because they both integrated into the Harvard Library organization and relocated. While there was potential for disruption, Thomas said that staff there were cheerful and more-than coping, managing to meet the needs of patrons.
She mentioned Debra Cuoco’s work in the Weissman Preservation Center on a Chinese rubbing that needed to be flattened and restored. Thomas noted that one of the incredible experiences of working in the Harvard Library is the ability to see something previously inaccessible made available, not only to Harvard students and faculty, but also to the public. She said that one of her key goals is to do more outreach—working to make Harvard’s collections more visible worldwide. The Harvard Library, which has saved rare objects for centuries, has a mission to make them more widely available.
Thomas marveled at how undergraduates studying books of hours actually look at an original book of hours—an experience only a place like Harvard can provide. She commended Sabrena Johnson using modern resources to create a binding for an unbound facsimile of medieval book leaves, reflecting the heritage of original bindings.
The GSD’s Loeb Library is teeming with innovation, she said—from hiring a new librarian for GIS to having a library staff member help graduate students looking at the placement of hospitals in cities and neighborhoods.
Thomas mentioned a number of innovations across the libraries, including Free the Law at the Law Library. (See slide.)
Thomas emphasized the need to celebrate the collections, which are the lifeblood of Harvard. There is an anxiety that with collections going digital the physical items will be displaced. She said that we need to emphasize our unique, rare, special collections because ordinary materials will become mostly electronic and widely available.
Thomas then turned her focus to what to expect in coming months. The first topic she addressed was Affinity Groups. The Affinity Group head personnel agreements ended on August 31, 2013 and they were extended to December 31, 2013. A committee headed by Marilyn Dunn is evaluating the Affinity Groups and will produce a report by the end of October, and Thomas expects to make a decision in November. The evaluation will include a staff survey.
Thomas addressed another suggested topic—the issue of a cultural divide between local and shared services. She noted that sharing services is a way the Library can save money and work more efficiently, so that energy can be spent on any number of remaining things to do. Once you address a cataloging backlog, for example, there is still special collections cataloging to do. She said that if the Library becomes as efficient as it can with processes, it can use its staff expertise to spend more time on initiatives, such as Open Access.
Thomas then addressed workload and understaffing, saying she needs staff members to help solve it. She said that we need to first define the problem and work together to address it. Using Access Services as an example, Thomas said they were discussing ideas like training options. She said a model like she used at Oxford might work here: four two-hour meetings for problem-solving. The meetings were divided by 1) defining the problem, 2) reporting back on ideas 3) drafting recommendations for a solution and 4) agreeing on draft recommendations.
Thomas acknowledged the turmoil in the Harvard Library in recent years. From working in other institutions at various stages of formation, she said she was familiar with the situation. At Oxford, for example, they had already gone through an integration process when she arrived. She said that there had been a vitriolic atmosphere at the start of integration—including cars being keyed. She said she hoped that Harvard’s library staff can come together in a constructive way.
She next addressed MoU’s, saying that with year 1 complete, she would be having discussions with deans. For now, there would not be making any changes until seeing the year-end figures.She said it would take-in-depth analysis looking at measures and quality of services, which are harder to define.
Thomas then showed slides with information on the Library’s budget, revenues and expenses. She questioned concerns about money to buy collections. The difference between Harvard’s budget and those of peers is that peers spend a higher percentage on collections. Harvard’s budget is huge, she noted, and much larger than that of peers. Harvard has a lot of money—but could use more, which relates to the campaign.
The campaign launches on Saturday, September 21, 2013, she said, and the library will be a part of it. The Library does not yet have full-blown case statement, and she said she would solicit ideas from staff members for specific things to fund, citing as examples a curator in Persian studies, an acquisitions fund or money for preservation. Thomas also said she would advocate for the Library with the deans of Schools to ensure that the Library was included in School fundraising plans as well.
Addressing staffing levels, Thomas said although she could not get into detail, she did not take the concern lightly. She said it was important to identify strategic priorities and align resources to ensure they are executed.
On the suggested topic of innovation, Thomas had a two-part answer:
1) She said that the Library wants to encourage experimentation—even those that fail, because you can learn from failure. The Library should balance innovation with what can be sustained. She mentioned a grant-writing project at Cornell in which staff competed for small grants internally.
2) She said she hopes to build the Harvard Library into an organization with the capacity for innovation. Staff should be able to have time to hear speakers, go to conferences and have time to think. Libraries should be among the top innovative departments at a university.
Addressing the suggested topic of dual, competing infrastructures, Thomas said that we are in a time of change, and we won’t get it all right instantly. There will be dual systems for a while, but there is movement. Thomas met with the University CIO to talk about bringing together different systems, including email and calendaring. She said that we will need to make some compromises—but over the next twelve months, people will see progress towards common policies, common practices and common systems.
Thomas stressed that the Harvard Library has made huge progress over the last three to four years and that she wants to see that progress continue in a constructive way. She expressed hope that colleagues can be honest but considerate. “The best we can do is to agree on what is best thing for the University, for students, faculty, staff and I’m positive we can work something out.”