A major administrative restructuring at the Harvard University Library announced this week could mean greater coordination of technology services across the university’s vast and somewhat fragmented collection.
Based on recommendations from a library task force published last year, the reorganization will replace the present decentralized leadership structure at the university’s 70 campus libraries with a single governing body. The new Library Board—which will be installed next year—will include faculty and deans from a variety of disciplines, and it will be charged with appointing an executive director to manage the new unified library system.
“The decentralized aspects of our system that facilitated the growth of Harvard’s collections are now straining our ability to meet our patrons’ needs,” said David C. Lamberth, a divinity school professor and chair of the Harvard Library Implementation Work Group, in an e-mail. “Because the libraries that make up the Harvard library system currently operate with great autonomy over all aspects of their operations, we haven’t taken as aggressive an approach to investing in digital development or as comprehensive and forward-looking a strategy as the situation demands.”
The work group, which developed the new leadership model, hopes the change will better connect resources and services across the university’s many library facilities—especially where technology is concerned. Although the incoming library board will decide on specific technology projects, Mr. Lamberth said he would like to see the new leadership develop a central search portal for all Harvard libraries. “It’s what users need and expect, and is crucial to fostering the best research and learning,” he said.
Creating a unified technology infrastructure has been a longstanding goal at the library. Harvard introduced an electronic catalog in 1989, but the last major library facility on the campus did not plug into that system until 2005. According to Mr. Lamberth, individual libraries have until now been given “broad latitude in making choices around technology, materials acquisition, and other projects.” While that decentralized system has empowered individual libraries to tailor their collections to their specific needs, it has also created a matrix of overlapping systems that has complicated cooperation between libraries.
Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs for the University of California system, said there are huge advantages for centralizing library leadership. That includes turning fragmented departmental collections into a centralized catalog—like the one that the University of California system started more than 30 years ago—which Mr. Greenstein said has boosted search capabilities for scholars and helped reduce redundancy in acquisitions.
But putting power in the hands of a centralized body comes with some trade-offs. While librarians may be reluctant to relinquish total control over their collections, Mr. Greenstein said the choice is an obvious one: “Operating independently, you can have this range of services, or operating in this consortium you can have more of everything.”