January 23, 2022

"A Library System Hanging in the Balance": An Open Letter From Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers

From the Letter (2 pages; PDF):

Since 2009, Harvard has been reorganizing its 73 libraries into a consolidated entity, the Harvard Library. Library staff members at all levels are deeply concerned that some of the proposed changes, including workforce reductions, will result in serious threats to the integrity of the Library. We worry that if the voices of staff are not heard and the reorganization continues on its present course, thousands of books and materials could be lost, service standards could drop to unacceptable levels, and human relationships that are key to research, curriculum, and collection development could be severed.

In recent communications, Harvard Library (HL) leaders have implied that staffing levels need to be reduced to put us in line with our peers, asserting that Harvard spends more on its library than other universities. But HL leaders have not provided the community with any data to support the assumption that this discrepancy is caused by “overstaffing.” We would expect Harvard Library to be more expensive to operate than its peers — it is larger, with a spectacularly broad and unique collection that requires sophisticated maintenance. It has significant offsite holdings, and offers deluxe services such as HD Transfer and “Scan-and-Deliver.”


In order to reduce labor costs, HL increasingly sends books and materials to external vendors for outsourced cataloging. The results are alarming: outsourced materials are frequently cataloged with mistakes in title, author, subject, or call number. Since staff members often do not have time or permission to make corrections, the errors have led to thousands of materials becoming undiscoverable. The materials reside physically on shelves or in the Depository, but patrons are unable to locate or retrieve them. Precious books, films, journals, documents, and other treasured resources are being lost.

At a professional school library, one staff member recalls a backlog project where the school sent more than 8,000 titles to an outsourcing provider, and describes the results as “deplorable”:


In all library departments, students and temps provide valuable assistance to overworked permanent staff, but dependency on short-term staff actually creates more work. Although temporary workers initially seem lower in cost, the amount of time that permanent staff spend training students and temps on sophisticated tasks and checking their work cancels out most or all of the savings.


Librarians and assistants regularly work on projects that span departments and require advanced skills. Often these projects fall outside of official job descriptions, but they are vital to patrons’ efforts to carry out research, develop curricula, teach courses, and diagnose patients. If staffing levels are cut further or jobs are over-simplified, these critical functions will suffer.


The Harvard Library is a treasured resource in a great institution literally built around books. But the skilled and energetic staff makes the Library system great, more than any data point about the vastness or breadth of its holdings. Our library system, in all of its amazing complexity and unrivaled depth, is in jeopardy. Current operational realities, particularly the problems resulting from understaffing and outsourcing, pose significant threats to the Library’s continued greatness.

No one person can claim to have the authoritative model for the great Library of the 21st century. But there is only one effective approach to such a major reorganizational effort: the process needs to be transparent and participatory. If the cautionary cries of library staff about severe understaffing and quality concerns are not heard and heeded, the Harvard Library Transition will not be successful.

Read the Complete Letter (Includes Comments from Harvard Library Employees)

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.