Campus & Community

Libraries coming together

8 min read

Sarah Thomas, vice president of Harvard Library, also to oversee FAS libraries

In a move that brings together the leadership of the libraries of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) and the Harvard Library under a single individual, Sarah Thomas, vice president for the Harvard Library, has been named to carry forward plans for increased cooperation and communication as the Roy E. Larsen Librarian of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

In that role, Thomas will oversee all FAS libraries, according to an announcement today by Dean Michael D. Smith.

The appointment comes just over a month after Thomas became vice president following six years as head of the libraries at the University of Oxford in England.

Her dual leadership roles will be independent from each other. She will report to Smith on FAS matters, working toward better coordinating operations in the FAS system while still preserving the individual identities of each library, Smith said in an email to the faculty.

“I’m very inspired by Drew Faust and her articulation of ‘One University, One Harvard’ and the benefits that can accrue to the parts by sharing their knowledge, their expertise, their collections, their facilities,” said Thomas during an interview at Wadsworth House. She called the FAS appointment “thrilling.”

“If you look at what’s happening in the world today in terms of educational and research partnerships, there is a growth in global collaboration,” she said. “So if we can’t practice what we preach at home and have our own individual libraries work together or have our own Schools work together, how can we partner with Singapore or another part of the world? We have to learn how to put in place those modes of working together.”

“A long and happy marriage”

University Librarian Robert Darnton said Thomas’ vast experience makes her an “absolutely perfect” fit to lead the Harvard Library and the FAS libraries. “I think she was the best conceivable choice for Harvard,” said Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and a member of the Library Board. “She has such a spectacular career, and she’s so good with people and such an expert with books.”

At Oxford, Thomas was Bodley’s Librarian, the first woman and non-British citizen to hold that post in 400 years. Before that, she was University Librarian at Cornell University for 11 years, served as president of the Association of Research Libraries, and held positions at the Library of Congress, among others.

“She will be instrumental in helping the library to have an adequate place in the capital campaign,” Darnton added, noting the library’s fundraising needs.

James Engell, Gurney Professor of English Literature and professor of comparative literature, said Thomas’ management style “seems to be extremely good. She seems to be tough-minded yet listens very well. She understands the complexities of Harvard’s libraries. And she understands that Harvard libraries have been going through a lot of transition in the last five years.”

Engell, who is vice chairman of the Library Faculty Advisory Council, said that having a single person running the Harvard Library and the FAS libraries “makes sense” given the overarching goal of better connecting the libraries.

“The thing that impresses me most about Sarah Thomas is that, with her experience and intelligence, she understands all of these complexities, and she does so without any factiousness or friction or ideological slant or preset sweeping goal in mind as she comes into this position,” he said. “There may be a honeymoon period, there may not, but my prediction is that it’s going to be a long and happy marriage.”

At the invitation of Deputy Provost Margaret E. Newell and the Harvard Library Board, Thomas was brought in last January as a consultant to identify the libraries’ needs and propose how best to address them following what some would characterize as an unsettled period.

“I was really struck by how important the library was, how much people cared about their library,” said Thomas of her winter visit.

Her decision to leave Oxford, she said, was prompted by a sense of loyalty to the institution that first gave her a chance.

“I’ve been associated with Harvard for a large part of my adult life in one way or another, and I thought, ‘Gosh, if there’s a way I can help bring this institution together, I would like to do it.’ ”

“Indispensable for about five minutes”

A Massachusetts native, Thomas grew up in Williamsburg, a tiny town in the foothills of the Berkshires. She traveled just nine miles down the road to attend Smith College in Northampton. After graduation, she set out for Cambridge to find her first job while she considered going off to law school or perhaps becoming a writer. Thomas found a position — as a searcher and filer at Widener Library.

It was, she says, most certainly not love at first sight.

“I never wanted to be a librarian,” said Thomas. “One of my best friends had come to me in my senior year of college and said, ‘Oh, Sarah, I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to go to Simmons [College] and be a librarian.’ And I thought, oh my God, that’s terrible!”

After working at Widener, Thomas decided to go to graduate school to study German (in which she eventually earned a Ph.D.), and approached the inimitable Carol Ishimoto, then-head of technical services, to announce that she was leaving.

“I went to tell Carol, and she said, ‘Oh, Sarah, I’m devastated. How will we ever replace you? This is dreadful.’ That was about 11 o’clock in the morning,” said Thomas. “At 1 o’clock, I came back from my lunch, and she had just appointed my replacement. I was indispensable for about five minutes!”

Thomas said the experience stuck with her during her four-decade career. “It was a good lesson for me to learn that no one is really indispensable,” she said. “And it taught me humility.”

It wasn’t until returning to Widener from abroad and being offered the chance to study library science with some financial help from Harvard that Thomas reconsidered a career that had once sounded unglamorous.

“What I did see once I was inside a great library [like Widener]: Here you were in a place where the scope and scale of what was being done — and the depth of expertise, the knowledge that people had — was phenomenal.”

“Getting people what they need”

Although she knows that the libraries face a host of complex challenges that she will be expected to help overcome, Thomas said she has “not come in with any preconception” about how things ought to be handled.

“I actually prefer to have … lots and lots of discussion with people about what are their priorities and to inspire people to think of creative ways to do things.”

In the short term, Thomas said, she will focus on practical goals. “I need to learn more about what people are doing here at the University. Not just what’s in the library, but what the strategic goals are for the Schools and for the University. I need to then think about how we insert ourselves into that activity so we are supporting and collaborating in that.” Also, she’ll concentrate on “understanding the financial underpinning to make sure it’s sturdy [enough] to support those initiatives.”

Asked how she intends to meet the needs of faculty, Thomas said, “The short answer to that is: People want more books. And I need to get them more books because that’s what they want. But the more nuanced answer might be: Which of these books do we need to own and store here centrally, or are there other ways to meet people’s needs and not spend as much on purchasing, ordering, cataloging, and storing material?”

As for the collections, Thomas said the library has already prepared a report outlining strategic objectives for building content, which has been widely discussed and endorsed by the Library Board, and the next step is to continue those “worthy” efforts.

Longer term, she intends to address the “twin pillars” for collections: expanding digital initiatives so more of the library’s archival treasures can be accessed, not only by Harvard scholars and students but by scholars around the world, and also making sure that Harvard’s paper-based collections of primary-source materials are preserved and accessible.

“There’ll be a very strong commitment to developing collections because I think that’s an area where there’s been anxiety or dissatisfaction,” Thomas said. “We want to get people what they need and make sure when they want something, they know they can have it.”