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A Note from Sarah Thomas

An update and season's greetings from the vice president for the Harvard Library. 


December 17, 2013

Dear Colleagues,

As we near the end of the calendar year, I have been reflecting on the Harvard Library. There’s much that is good and some things that are works in progress. You, library staff members, are a joy to work with. Everywhere I go, on my many library visits (my tally to date is 59), I have been welcomed by enthusiastic, intelligent and hard-working people. I’m not alone in this assessment of library staff. Last Friday I presented an update to the Council of Deans and President Faust. One of the deans had recently held a lunch for students during which he asked the third-year students what they would advise new students. They replied: “Go see the librarians early! They’ll help you focus the topic for your papers, find you all sorts of helpful resources and you’ll write a much better paper as a result.” It was terrific to have the senior administrators from throughout the University hear such praise.

You’ve told me you are eager for more transparency and clearer direction, and I hope you are finding more openness and clarity about our goals. People want to know how decisions are made, and who makes them. This came out in the review of the Affinity Groups. The report noted that not all the Affinity Groups were equally successful, and that the Affinity Group heads lacked authority, making their roles difficult or confusing. There was a structural problem with the role in relation to that of library directors, and the role of Affinity Group head was a demanding one to hold alongside other important responsibilities. 

On balance, considering these and other options, and after widespread consultation, I am decommissioning the Affinity Groups as of the end of December. This will result in savings that can be redirected to other priorities. A new structure of committees and working groups—some new, some revived—will subsume the Affinity Groups’ roles. For example, before Affinity Group 2, there was a Science Council, and before Affinity Group 5, special collections librarians met to discuss areas of common interest. The Science Council will begin anew, and we will create a forum in which special collections and archives issues can be addressed. The library directors, Shared Service heads, members of the Library Leadership Team and other groups are helping me develop the initial list of committees that will meet. Some of the areas will be Collections, Digital Library Development (content and infrastructure) and Research, Teaching and Learning. We’ll want to have wide cross-university participation from a range of staff members. It will be important that when groups are established, they have a clear charge and reporting structure, and for some, we may want working groups that have a sunset date. Committees are valuable ways for us to share information and develop policies, and we want to be sure to use them as effective tools for advancing our strategic priorities.

Meanwhile, I want to thank those who have served as Affinity Group heads over the past 18 months: Leslie Donnell, Doug Gragg, Dan Hazen, Lynne Schmelz, Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, Ann Whiteside and Suzanne Wones, plus Pam Peifer, who served as coordinator for Affinity Group 1. They have contributed significantly to the development of the Harvard Library. One of their major accomplishments was the document the Library Board approved in June: Towards a Collections and Content Development Strategic Plan. They have continued to advance the implementation of the recommendations of the document, ensuring forward momentum on this important area. 

With the decision about the Affinity Groups finalized, I am now exploring, through conversations with individuals and groups, an organizational structure that will respect the unique missions and leadership of individual libraries and units, but which at the same time is integrated to ensure good communication, dissemination of best practices and economies of scale. As you know, it’s not easy to find the right balance. It will be essential to have a team of people who can lead various initiatives that cut across our libraries. I hope to have ideas to share with you at an All Staff Meeting next semester. My goal is to have a structure that enables us to gain more traction on the large number of activities we have underway or that are being planned. I’m also looking for a sensible way to manage the responsibilities of being vice president for the Harvard Library and the Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, where there are many synergies, but also some need for separation.

Some of the activities we have underway are:

  1. Setting strategic priorities so we can deliver results successfully, on time and on budget.
  2. Preparing our FY15 budget to reflect our priorities.
  3. Evaluating discovery products to improve access to our holdings.
  4. Working with HarvardX to support the development of complementary library services and to establish a mechanism for archiving HarvardX courses.
  5. Creating an integrated list of opportunities for the Campaign for the School libraries and the Harvard Library as a whole.
  6. Reviving the Strategic Conversations program in 2014, with a focus on the impact of changes in scholarship and teaching on library architecture.
  7. Assessing options for the future of the Harvard Depository, including building an eighth module and shared storage agreements.
  8. Digitizing our unique and distinctive collections to share with others through open access.
  9. Advancing a culture of innovation through support for creative ideas and applications to improve library services.
  10. Providing opportunities for professional development, such as learning about data curation and usability.

This isn’t a comprehensive list by any means. Indeed there are scores of initiatives underway, and a real energy abounds. Of course, it’s not all rosy. There are challenges in scaling our resources to match our ambitions and there are different perspectives on what are the best ways to accomplish our goals. Life isn’t simple. Harvard is a complex place. But I sense we are coming together, and as long as we can respect each other, speak openly about issues and bring our collective knowledge and experience to bear, I am confident we will together build a Harvard Library that is the best of the best, an unparalleled resource and partner for students, faculty and a global community of scholars and learners.

I very much look forward to continuing discussions with you about our future. And, at the same time, I am eagerly anticipating the winter break, spending time with my family, finishing the books I am currently reading (Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries and Jung Chang’s Empress Dowager Cixi) and inhabiting a world in which meetings and email don’t dominate. Last Christmas my sons and I created a marzipan-covered cake in the form of a famous Oxford library, the Radcliffe Camera (see photo above). I’ve been mulling over the possibility of baking a version of one of the Harvard libraries. Have there been other such creations?

I hope you have a wonderful holiday, and a healthy and happy New Year,