Campus & Community

Building the Harvard Library

6 min read

Leadership team for transition now in place

Given their knowledge of everything from dusty old tomes to statistical databases, most Harvard librarians are experts on the past and the present. But on the second floor of 90 Mt. Auburn St., a new team of Harvard University Library leaders is focused squarely on the future.

A year ago this week, the University announced plans to better align the Harvard Library’s structure with the University’s evolving academic priorities. Soon after, a new governing body, the Harvard Library Board, and an executive director were named.

The Harvard Library’s leadership team, however, has only recently taken shape. Led by Executive Director Helen Shenton and Mary Lee Kennedy, senior associate provost for Harvard Library, the group has an ambitious aim: to take a diverse network of libraries that have grown organically over the course of 375 years and bring them together under a single mission and structure.

“Right now we’re taking leaps forward on the strategic opportunities that we identified in the Library Board meeting in June,” said Kennedy, who in July left her post as executive director of knowledge and library services at Harvard Business School to join the team. “In a community that is as diverse and talented as Harvard, we actually have an opportunity to make everything that’s already quite excellent even better. It’s a great position to be in, but it also has to be a very inclusive process.”

Indeed, one of the team’s challenges is to take input on the library’s existing structure from all levels — from staff librarians to the Library Board, which oversees their work — and build from it a more efficient, forward-thinking library.

With technology rapidly changing scholarship and librarianship, “there is this realism everywhere about the fact that no one can do it all,” said Shenton, who previously worked for the British Library and who became the Harvard Library’s first executive director at the end of last year.

“There’s been an explosion of information. But also, I think there’s more of a philosophy now around collaboration and connecting” — a philosophy Shenton wants to harness and promote at Harvard. “We’re very keen on making innovation part of the library’s culture,” she said.

The Harvard Library transition, which was first proposed in a task force report in 2009 and has been in development for two years, entered a more concrete design phase this past August. Starting in January, the leadership team will help oversee the implementation of a series of recommended changes to the libraries’ organizational structure, a process that should be completed by the end of 2012.

It also will handle functions common to all the libraries through a shared services system, which includes information and technical services, access services, preservation, and digital imaging.

“The Library Board is the decision maker about strategy and policy. They’re looking out for the good of the whole institution,” Kennedy said. “It’s our job as a team to work together and make that happen.”

But that doesn’t mean Harvard’s system of 70-plus libraries will become entirely centralized. Kennedy was quick to say that individual libraries will retain their existing relationships with the Schools and faculties they serve, so that they can stay in touch with the needs of the faculty, students, and researchers that depend on them.

“Harvard is a network, and all the pieces have to work together,” Kennedy said. “We call it ‘shared services’ on purpose. It’s about shared accountability, and making sure the whole is bigger than the parts.

“We’re in a phase of reinventing ourselves — but not without tremendous thought,” Kennedy said. “We’re basing it on the last two years of investigations and recommendations.”

The transition offers the Harvard Library “the gift of time” to focus on big-picture questions, Kennedy said.

“This is new for Harvard,” she continued. “We have not said in the past, ‘We’re all going to work together to figure out what we want to do.’ We’re looking at how to leverage what we hold in common, and also to build on areas where we’re doing very exciting work, like digital preservation, our early steps in coalition building with other institutions, and collection development.

“In some ways we need to be bold.”

Rounding out the leadership team:

  • Franziska Frey, head of preservation and digital imaging services and Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian. Frey joins Harvard from the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she was the McGhee Distinguished Professor. She holds a Ph.D. in natural science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and an M.S. in geography from the University of Zurich.
  • Kira Poplowski, director of communications. Poplowski comes to Harvard from Pitzer College, where she served as vice president for public relations and marketing. She holds a Ph.D. in international political economy from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
  • Lisa Schwallie, chief financial officer. Schwallie joins Harvard from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where she was director of new initiatives. She graduated cum laude from Duke University and earned an M.B.A. and a certificate in public management at Stanford University.
  • Matthew Sheehy, head of access services. Sheehy previously served as assistant director of the library for the Harvard Depository, a position he held after working as acting director for reference and research services at the New York Public Library. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Hartford and an M.L.S. (with honors) and M.A. in music history at the State University of New York at Buffalo.
  • Gosia Stergios, knowledge and information programs strategist and co-leader (with Kennedy) of the Library Strategy Development Program. Stergios previously worked as a strategy analyst for Harvard Business School’s Knowledge and Library Services. She holds an M.Phil. in history of philosophy from Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski (Poland), an M.A. in philosophy from Columbia University, and an M.S. in information science from Simmons College.
  • Lisa Toste, director of human resources. In her 18 years at Harvard, Toste has held several human resources positions, including senior human resources consultant at Harvard University Library. A graduate of Boston College, she also is certified as a professional in human resources by the Society for Human Resource Management.
  • Scott Wicks, head of information and technical services. Wicks joins the Harvard Library from Cornell University, where he held a number of senior positions, including, most recently, associate university librarian for central library operations. He earned an M.B.A. at Cornell, an M.L.S. from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a B.A. from the State University of New York at Geneseo.