Campus & Community

Sidney Verba to retire

6 min read

Appointed in 1984, Verba changed the face of the University Library

Interim President Derek Bok said of the retiring director of the University Library: ‘Sid’s foresight has helped to preserve our valuable collections and opened Harvard’s vast resources to scholars, researchers, and students throughout the world.’ (Photo by Brian Smith)

Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library, is retiring. He will be stepping down at the end of the academic year, June 30, 2007, interim President Derek Bok has announced.

It is a departure sending shock waves not only across the Harvard campus but throughout the library community as well.

“I don’t think the library world has ever had a better friend,” says Deanna Marcum, associate librarian of the Library of Congress.

One of Verba’s accomplishments, those who know his work say, has been to help make Harvard’s many libraries into one entity, accessible to users to whom its institutional subdivisions are invisible and inconsequential.

Verba has also won praise for his efforts, via the Library Digital Initiative, “to unlock Harvard’s collections, for both the Harvard community and the global citizenry,” as Sarah Thomas, Karl A. Kroch University Librarian at the Cornell University Library, puts it. “The most recent evidence of this is Harvard’s being part of the Google Five,” she says, referring to Harvard’s involvement with Google in digitizing public domain books in its collections.

Bok, who appointed Verba in 1984, said, “Professor Verba has led the Harvard libraries during one of their most transformative periods in University’s history. … When I appointed him more than 20 years ago, we were only beginning to realize what the revolution in information technology would mean. Sid’s foresight has helped to preserve our valuable collections and opened Harvard’s vast resources to scholars, researchers, and students throughout the world. I believe that generations of students will benefit from the doors that Sid has opened.”

Verba has served longer than anyone else who has held the title of director of the University Library. And not since Thaddeus Harris, whose tenure (1831-1856) straddled the card catalogue revolution of the 19th century, has anyone spent so long at the top of Harvard’s libraries.

Yet Verba came to his appointment as a distinguished political scientist, not a trained librarian.

“When President Bok offered it to me, it came out of the blue,” he says. As a scholar, he had been involved with libraries all his life. But his view of the University Library was rather like his view of Stop & Shop, he says – “I depended on it completely for the stuff I had to live on, but I didn’t have the foggiest notion how it got onto the shelves.”

Did he know what kind of information revolution was about to unfold?

“Only in the vaguest way,” he says.

That changed in short order. “He immersed himself in library issues,” Marcum says. “He has been simply the model library leader. Sid has been at the table for all the big collaborative issues.”

Marcum calls Verba’s insistence that Harvard share its resources more widely “stunning,” noting that until he came to the library, “Harvard had been quite independent.”

“There have been a thousand flowers blooming in library digitization,” says Thomas of Cornell, “and it’s been very opportunistic.” But because of Verba’s work, she says, “it’s now possible through programs with very well-conceived policies and standards in place for people around the world to experience the breadth and depth of the Harvard University Library.”

Karin Trainer, university librarian of the Princeton University Library, comments, “The Harvard University Library has of course had a long and distinguished history, and under Sidney Verba it has become even more distinguished.”

She identifies three specific areas in which Verba’s contributions at Harvard have become the model:

The Harvard Depository, which she calls a “sophisticated way” of addressing the problem of needing to send books off campus.

Preservation: “The Harvard University Library preservation staff, facilities, and program are the envy of academic libraries everywhere.”

The Library Digital Initiative, which she says has had “a great deal of influence … on the ways libraries see themselves as responsible for creating and managing digital content.”
Another project that has gone forth during the Verba years is the Open Collections Program. Something of a counterpart to the Google project, though less well known, it aims to digitize and make available university resources on a given topic. The first of these is “Women Working, 1800-1930,” on women’s participation in the United States economy.

However significant his work with Harvard’s libraries, part of Verba’s achievement has been that he has managed it all while remaining remarkably engaged as a political scientist. Most scholars put their own research on hold when they assume an administrative role. Not so Sidney Verba.

“I was not ready to give up anything,” he says. It was clear to him, he says, that his faculty position was “supposed to be a real job,” including a halftime teaching load for most of those years.

A printout of the books of which he is author or co-author runs to four pages. His honors include election to president of the American Political Science Association as well as receipt of that organization’s James Madison Prize (1993) for his career contribution, and the Johan Skytte Prize (2002), an international prize for distinguished contribution to political science. He belongs to the National Academy of Sciences and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

If Verba’s work as a political scientist is to be summed up in one word, it might well be “participation.” In a few more words, that topic might be elaborated to “the issues of political participation by different groups.” The great framing question of his work has been, “Whose voice is heard by the government?”

His initial engagement with the topic was “half-accidental,” he says: “I sort of drifted into it.” Gabriel Almond, his senior professor and mentor, invited him to join a big research project he was starting on the subject. It was a favor he has returned again and again to younger colleagues and students.

And once involved in the project, Verba became absorbed. “It’s one of the biggest issues in America today.”

And what will you be doing in retirement? he is asked.

A pause follows – two beats at least. And then, “I’ll be thinking about what I’m going to do in retirement.”

But as it happens, he does have an idea: Continuing his longtime interest in “the citizen voice,” he’s working on a new study of interest groups in the United States, asking whom they represent – ethnic groups, women, trade associations, professions.

The idea is to produce “a kind of statistical model of what the interest groups in the U.S. look like,” he explains.

He adds, “Academics are the only people I can think of for whom this sentence makes sense: ‘I’m hoping to get some time off so that I can get some work done.’”