Harvard must restructure its fragmented library system and establish shared administrative services in order to respond to the rapidly changing technological and intellectual landscape of the 21st century, according to a report released today (Nov. 12) by the Task Force on University Libraries.

The report detailed how the University’s system, which now includes 73 libraries, has grown organically over three centuries. It found that while distributed decision-making contributed to the development of Harvard’s collections, it also created myriad technological and operational obstacles that are straining library resources.

“The Harvard library structure is unique among great universities for its degree of decentralization and its often internally incompatible modes of operation,’’ the Task Force reported. “Perpetuation of the current administrative structure promises to hold the University captive to frozen accidents of history, rather than facilitating the development of new strengths and fostering an agile organization for the 21st century.’’

In releasing the report, Provost Steven Hyman underscored the importance of realigning the libraries’ resources toward a model that emphasizes access to scholarly materials over the aggressive acquisition of widely available resources.

“The digital revolution has fundamentally changed the way human beings collect and disseminate information, and scholarship is increasingly crossing academic boundaries, opening new areas of research that require new resources,’’ Hyman said. “As we build upon Harvard’s outstanding collection, we must envision what the library of the 21st century should be and how it can best serve the University.”

To carry out the Task Force’s recommendations, Hyman named an eight-member Implementation Work Group that will develop new funding and operating models for the library system. The panel will work with University and School leadership, Hyman said, “but members of the panel are duty-bound to leave their individual School or library affiliations at the door.” The panel will consult closely with library staff and existing library committees.

“As a faculty member who relies on the resources and skilled staff of the libraries, I am gratified to be able to play a part in this effort to position Harvard’s library system for the future,’’ said David Lamberth, professor of theology and philosophy at Harvard Divinity School, who will chair the implementation. “Harvard’s collection is one of the world’s treasures, and our overarching goal must be to ensure that it continues to thrive for generations of scholars to come.”

The other members of the group are:

Nancy Cline, Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College, FAS

Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor; Director of the Harvard University Library (HUL)

John Haigh, Executive Dean, Harvard Kennedy School

Mary Lee Kennedy, Executive Director, Knowledge and Library Services, HBS

Leslie Kirwan, Dean of Administration and Finance, FAS

Richard Mills, Dean for Operations and Business Affairs, HMS

John Palfrey, Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources and Henry N. Ess III Professor of Law, HLS

The Task Force identified five areas of reform for the implementation panel to address. Its specific recommendations were:

1. Establish and implement a shared administrative infrastructure

The current decentralized system “impedes nimble, effective, and fiscally responsible responses to 21st century challenges,’’ the report said as it recommended unifying information technology functions, preservation activities, and some acquisition and cataloging services.

2. Rationalize and enhance information and technology systems

The Task Force said that core systems must be standardized across the campus to enable Harvard libraries to better collaborate internally and externally. “This focus on systems improvement will not succeed, however, unless paired with changes in the model for decision-making and funding,’’ according to the report.

3. Revamp the financial model for the Harvard libraries

The Task Force urged the University to re-evaluate the way it funds library materials, spaces and services, beginning with the financing of the Harvard Depository, which it said “combines disincentives to storing materials with procedures that punish the most generous providers of materials.’’

4. Rationalize the system for acquiring, accessing and developing a “single university” collection.

Currently, the library system places emphasis on building comprehensive collections by acquisition, but thanks to technological advances it matters less where materials are housed than it once did and researchers in many fields are increasingly opting for access to resources over ownership. Also, a centralized purchasing and licensing office would maximize the University’s negotiating position.

5. Collaborate more ambitiously with peer institutions

Harvard’s information technology systems must be improved in order to operate more efficiently with other systems, with the goal of maximizing access to scholarly materials for faculty and students.

To download a pdf of the Task Force Statement. To download a pdf of the Task Force Report.

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