February 26, 1998
University Gazette


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  Speaking Volumes

Professor Sidney Verba champions the University Library

Sidney Verba first fell in love with Widener Library almost 50 years ago, when he marched up its broad steps and through its monumental colonnade as a Harvard College freshman.

Little did he suspect that one day he would preside over Widener and the other nearly 100 libraries that make up the acclaimed Harvard University Library system.

But preside he does as director of the Harvard University Library, a part-time position linked to the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professorship, which he has held since 1984. As Library Director, he oversees the 13.5-million-volume collection and remains active on national and international fronts.

Verba is a champion of the University Library, both as a leader and as a scholar. His work on mass political behavior, civic volunteerism, and the role of the family in politics has taken him to libraries throughout Harvard. In addition to his research and teaching, he has authored some high-profile reports at Harvard in recent years, one on the University's relationship with ROTC and another on the state of the Core Curriculum.

In the Harvard tradition of having a senior faculty member as director of the University Library, Verba is a distinguished political scientist who has served as president of the American Political Science Association and is one of a small number of political scientists ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Verba talked recently with Gazette writer Debra Bradley Ruder about the state of Harvard's libraries.

Gazette: How does the University's Library system stack up against the other great libraries of the world?

Verba: The Harvard Library usually is placed in the category of the five mega-libraries of the world, along with the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, and the British Library. We are particularly proud of the Harvard Library because it is the only university library, and the only essentially privately owned library, in that category. It is unambiguously the greatest university library in the world.

Why is it in this category? Because we have one of the world's great collections. Why do we have a great collection? Because we've been collecting for a long time, and because we have a university that has been deeply dedicated to building a great research collection for a very extended period. So we have amassed a remarkable resource for the teaching and research community. What makes the collection great is that it cuts across various professional schools and disciplines.

But a great library is more than a collection; it is also people who acquire the materials, maintain them, and make them available to users. Harvard has some of the finest librarians.

Gazette: How big is the University Library?

Verba: We have roughly 13.5 million volumes, and we have millions of other objects -- manuscripts, maps, photographs, recordings, and the like. The only official task of the University Librarian, according to the original establishment of the job, is that each year I am supposed to count the volumes and tell the Harvard Corporation that they are safely on their shelves. I haven't quite managed to count all of them.

In addition, we now have a huge collection of non-paper-based information resources: for example, the Government Document Center contains an enormous amount of electronic data, and we have a large map collection, including electronic geographic systems, some of which is digitized. We also have a large number of electronic journals available to our patrons through our catalog system. The Library now is a massive multimedia enterprise.

Gazette: Is our Library the only one of the five

with open stacks?

Verba: Yes. We are the only one of these massive mega-libraries that allows our registered patrons into the stacks to browse, and this makes it fundamentally different. If you went into the stacks of the New York Public Library or the Library of Congress, you would see only library staff fetching books. You go into the Widener stacks and you see undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty members sitting there, working, wandering around, and pulling books off the shelves.

Gazette: Our Library system includes more than 90 libraries . . . .

Verba: We have nearly 100, including the University Archives, ranging from very large ones like Widener and the libraries of the professional schools, to a number of very specialized libraries, such as Tozzer Library of anthropology.

Many of the specialized libraries have close connections with the particular faculty and students who deal with the materials. For instance, the Harvard-Yenching Library is one of the world's greatest libraries in East Asian languages. It is located in a separate building which also houses the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. This creates a real intellectual community in which the library, the faculty, and the students are part of the same enterprise. A successful academic library is one in which there are close cooperation and collegial relations between librarians and the faculty. It is one of our major goals.

This is a very large, complicated, and dispersed collection across the whole University, which makes the work we've been doing in developing catalog systems that cover the whole University extremely important.

In some ways, the Library is our catalog system, in that it exists in a unified manner in the catalog, rather than in any particular physical location. My own work in political science crosses a variety of disciplinary boundaries, and I use books from the libraries of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, as well as books from the Kennedy School, the Law School, the School of Education, and the Divinity School. And all of that is on the catalog.

Gazette: How does the quality of the Library affect the quality of the University as a whole?

Verba: The most important way is that the Library is a major resource for teaching and research. The Library has always been described as the laboratory for the humanities and social sciences, and the libraries are very important for natural scientists as well, informing them about research that has been done.

On the teaching side, everyone knows that graduate teaching depends on a very rich and complicated research collection. It used to be thought that undergraduate teaching depended on a much more limited set of information. When I came here as a freshman in 1949, Lamont had just opened and was the first stand-alone undergraduate library in the country. The philosophy behind Lamont was that it would contain the basic readings that undergraduates needed for their instruction, while graduate students and faculty would use the in-depth research collection in Widener. Over the years we've changed the notion of what these libraries are. It turns out that half the users of Widener are undergraduates. This has to do with the specialization of knowledge and the fact that we no longer believe there is a canon in each field.

The University Library also increases the quality of Harvard by attracting top faculty and students. I would argue that the University's two great resources are the quality of the people and the quality of the books. And one of the reasons we have such outstanding people is that we have such outstanding books. That is, if there's any single thing that draws new faculty to Harvard, certainly in the humanities and in much of the social sciences, it's the Library. And once you bring in world-class faculty, you bring in world-class graduate students, and you create the kind of institution that brings in the best undergraduates.

Gazette: If someone handed you $10 million tomorrow to spend on Harvard's libraries, how would you spend it?

Verba: That's a hard one to answer because we have a number of basic needs that have to be met, and money is limited. So if you gave me $10 million, I would say to myself, here are my priorities, and I would realize that I'd have to ask you for another $70-$80 million.

One of our clear priorities is Widener Library, which is in need of major renovation. We also need to develop the capacity to manage huge amounts of digital information. That's an expensive proposition. But none of that makes much sense unless we continue to build and maintain the collection. That means acquiring new information, which each year becomes more expensive. We also have major concerns about preserving the existing collection -- making sure our books don't rot on the shelves while we're buying new ones.

Gazette: Widener Library hasn't had a major renovation in 75 years. What kind of shape is it in?

Verba: Widener was an innovative building for its day. The stacks

are an independent building, and the masonry walls are an envelope around it. The problem is that Widener really needs an upgrading of some of its basic functions. It still has much of its early wiring, which needs replacement in part because we have much greater electronic demands on libraries. We want to create places where people can plug in their laptop computers, and we want to upgrade the lighting. The building has a lot of windows; light and air are good for some things, but not for books. And so we have to deal with the nature of light in the building. In general, Widener requires extensive renovation and upgrading of its environmental and safety systems in order to secure the collection for future scholars.

Gazette: Are you moving ahead with the proposed renovations?

Verba: Yes. Dean Knowles and President Rudenstine are committed to doing this, and we are developing plans. It's going to be a major project. We are going to leave the books in the library, rather than take them all out. We have no choice, because there are approximately 3.5 million volumes and no place to store them, and because the books are so central to the functioning of the University. It's a major job -- but it has to be done. (See related story.)

Gazette: Tell me about the digital initiative being launched. What is a digital library, and what will it mean for Harvard?

Verba: The term "digital library" gives the impression that there is a separate library that is unconnected to the old-fashioned library housing books and journals. This is quite the opposite of what we have in mind. That is, we think of our Library as having many different media. It has a historical collection in paper. It has a growing collection in paper because that's the main medium for the production of scholarship and information right now and for a long time to come. The digital information we bring in, or that we create by reformatting some of this paper material, is all part of the same collection. It will be integrated, and scholars will use whichever information they want in whatever format they find best.

We hope to create the capacity to deal with this explosion in digital information. Libraries are not merely a bunch of books on the shelves; they are very carefully selected collections of information with an established structure for storing it, locating it, distributing it, and making sure they get it back. We've got hundreds of years of understanding about how to do this with books.

Digital information creates all the same problems. You have to acquire it, select what you want, and let people know where it is and how to retrieve it. You need to know who can access it and you need to protect it from being misused. Some people think this is very easy. It turns out that the digital world is very complicated. There are huge amounts of material in digital form, but a high proportion of it is junk. Libraries have to figure out what to make available in ways that, in a sense, authenticate the information.

Gazette: The Library already handles digital information, so what is going to be new?

Verba: We are already in the middle of the digital initiative. Our catalog is digitized, we have hundreds of journals and thousands of images in digital form. What we plan to do is bring in staff who specialize in scanning, information management, and so forth. We're thinking about a five-year period during which we would develop a lot of this capability. And of course, information technology is always changing, moving forward. We hope to develop the personnel and technological infrastructure over five years on which we can continue building into the future. (See related story.)

Gazette: Is there a danger that in concentrating on digital information, the library will neglect its great historical collections?

Verba: We certainly don't intend to. As I said, we will continue to buy lots of books and journals, because that is how most scholarship is still published. In addition, we are putting major effort into the preservation and conservation of our traditional collections. Our collections are wonderful and they are old -- they are wonderful because they are old. They need constant attention if they are to be preserved for scholarly use.

Many of our unique and heavily used research resources are endangered by embrittlement. We are major players in a national effort to reformat such books. Other parts of our collection need repair and protection. The University Library's Preservation Center is waging a war in an effort to preserve these resources. We have been significantly dependent on federal funding for this important work but need to develop new support. The well-being of these materials is essential to the future of scholarship and to the integrity of our collections. We have to build our collections with new material and preserve what we already have.

Gazette: What role does the Library play in teaching inside and outside the classroom?

Verba: In some fields there has always been serious involvement by librarians in the teaching process. Research librarians traditionally deal with questions and run reserve collections, and that is very important. In a place like Houghton, our rare book library, staff members often work closely with instructors in literature or art courses that use original materials.

An analogy is happening in the digital age, simply because students and faculty need guidance dealing with digital information. Librarians are getting more involved in training people to search for, download, and manipulate information and in helping faculty members develop digital materials. For example, the map collection created digitized maps of trade routes in the 19th century for a course in African art to help explain how various forms of art moved from one culture to another.

It's a very exciting and challenging time for librarians. Some people think the work of a librarian is routine. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reason Harvard needs such a skilled cadre of librarians -- and is blessed because it has one -- is that the job is constantly evolving as the nature of information changes.

Gazette: Do you have a favorite library?

Verba: I suppose if I had to choose, it would be Widener. I took this job as director of the University Library because I fell in love with Widener my freshman year. Back then, you had to get permission to get into the stacks, and I got a note from my English instructor because I was doing a paper. I remember being knocked over when I first walked in there; even the odor I remember. People tell me now that's the odor of decaying books and that I shouldn't have a romantic memory of it, but nevertheless, the odor of the Widener stacks is something you never forget.

Like lots of faculty members, I've always been deeply involved in books. And the first time I went into the Widener stacks, it was like one of those movies where you see a miser with a large box of gold coins that he's throwing in the air just for the physical presence of them. I was knocked over by having that many books there, by the physical presence of that much knowledge.


Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College