The Harvard Library Board today named Helen Shenton as the first executive director of the new Harvard Library, turning to a veteran of the British Library to develop a more coordinated management structure for the oldest library in the Western Hemisphere.

The decision came at the first meeting of the new board, which will oversee the work of the executive director as it reviews strategic plans for the new system and establishes a funding model to support it.

“Helen believes strongly, as do I, that academic libraries must not only collect and preserve materials and offer expert guidance to students and faculty alike, but must also be engines of innovation in this exciting time of change,” said Provost Steven E. Hyman, chair of the Harvard Library Board. “I look forward to working closely with Helen as we transform the greatest university library of the last century into the flagship university library of the 21st.”

Known as a strong strategic thinker, Shenton was a member of the British Library’s senior leadership team involved with the restructuring and transformation of the institution, one of the world’s largest and most comprehensive research collections, with more than 150 million items in its holdings. Her purview as head of collection care there encompassed conservation, training, research, collection, security, and storage for the library’s entire collection, which ranges from the Magna Carta to substantial, diverse digital materials.

Shenton came to Harvard earlier this year and has played a key role in a detailed analysis of the current decentralized system as a member of the Library Implementation Work Group, which recommended the restructuring.

“I am honored to accept this role at a transformative time for the world’s greatest university library,” Shenton said. “The digital future is here, all around us, transforming the way we teach, learn, research, communicate, and live. As the new Harvard Library’s first executive director, I feel a responsibility to be true to the institution’s legacy even as we make changes to adapt to the rapidly changing technological and intellectual landscape of the 21st century.” 

At the British Library, Shenton played a key role in confronting many of the issues that the Harvard Library will face in the coming years concerning digital preservation, library space, storage of print and digital materials, and evolving patron needs.

The British Library credits Shenton with transforming its collection care department into a world-class operation. Under her direction, the library established the Centre for Conservation, made up of state-of-the-art studios for preserving printed materials and sound; conserved more than 1.3 million items; increased access for readers by producing more than 152 million surrogacy frames and images; took part in major projects such as the virtual reunification of Codex Sinaiticus (the earliest New Testament in the world); and built digital preservation expertise.

In her new role, Shenton will be responsible for establishing a coordinated management structure for the libraries that balances the need for School-based decisions regarding patron-facing activities with the need for a more harmonized approach to strategic, administrative, and business processes.

“My immersion into the Harvard libraries has entailed a great deal of listening and learning. I have been privileged to see some fantastic examples of collaboration between faculty and library staff and of best practices in general,” Shenton said. “One of the most exciting challenges is to harness these ideas and this energy to create a culture of innovation and continuous improvement for the new Harvard Library.”

Waves and the waggle dance