Martha Whitehead

Martha Whitehead has been named Harvard University librarian, vice president for the Harvard Library, and the Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Science.

Campus & Community

New leader for Harvard Library

4 min read

Martha Whitehead, now at Queen’s University, will assume Cambridge post in June

Martha Whitehead, who has led the library at Queen’s University in Ontario, has been named to lead Harvard Library, the largest academic library in the world and the nation’s oldest.

Whitehead had been Queen’s University librarian since 2011 and vice provost since 2014.

“I’m delighted that Martha will be leading the Harvard Library,” said Provost Alan Garber. “The library is one of Harvard’s greatest jewels. Martha recognizes that it is a uniquely valuable resource to our students, researchers, other members of the Harvard community, and to the world. She is singularly qualified to take this institution to the next level. I look forward to working with her.”

Search committee members described Whitehead as “a deeply respected, forward-thinking library leader,” and “simultaneously a champion of the library and a consensus-builder with diverse constituent groups.”

Whitehead, who will become Harvard University librarian, vice president for the Harvard Library, and the Roy E. Larsen Librarian for the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, takes over in June for Sarah Thomas, who retired at the end of 2018 after five years at Harvard Library’s helm.

At Queen’s, she led strategic planning and oversaw organizational change. She worked to foster digital research infrastructure and supported new information services, such as research data management, scholarly publishing, and copyright advising. She has been active on the regional and national levels, and led the planning and implementation of Portage, a shared national library-based research data management network.

“At every stage of the search process, I’ve been extremely impressed by Martha,” said Deputy Provost Peggy Newell. “Her deep knowledge of libraries, her collaborative leadership style, and her proven ability to manage change are just a few of her unique qualities that the Harvard Library — and the entire Harvard community — will benefit from.”

Whitehead steps into the library’s leadership at a time of change for the system. She will lead a network of more than 25 separate libraries and more than 700 staff members. Harvard’s extraordinary collections number over 20 million volumes, 400 million manuscripts, 10 million photographs, 1 million maps, and tens of millions of digital images.

“I am thrilled to be joining Harvard, where the library and the University’s mission are so interwoven, and where there is such a rich legacy to build upon. I look forward to stewarding Harvard’s extraordinary collections, as well as helping the library play a critical role in the global digital landscape. I’m honored to be entrusted with leading the library forward during this complex period in the information realm,” Whitehead said.

The Harvard Library system has long blended digital and analog resources, and continues to consider the role of the modern library at a time of rapid technological change. Digitization of existing analog resources — books, manuscripts, photographs and others — is ongoing in an effort to make them more accessible to users anywhere in the world. The system is also in a time of physical renewal, as evidenced by the renovation of the Cabot Science Library, which reopened in 2017, and the recent announcement of plans to renovate Houghton Library, which houses part of Harvard’s rare-book collection.

Whitehead’s appointment also comes at a time of rethinking the role of the physical library. Cabot’s renovation, for example, included creating the Pritzker Commons with its new spaces to gather and collaborate, in addition to its more traditional book stacks and quiet study spots. In December, the Harvard Library and the Grossman Library merged, giving full Harvard Library access to 7,000 Extension School students.

“In the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, we are doubly grateful to have Martha joining Harvard,” said Dean Claudine Gay, Edgerley Family Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. “Not only will we benefit from her exciting vision for the Harvard Library system, but in her role as the Roy E. Larsen Librarian she will be deeply embedded in our community and joined in our efforts to advance knowledge across the broadest spectrum of fields.”

Whitehead was selected after an international search by a committee that included representatives of faculty, administrators, and library leaders from across the University. The process included outreach to the Harvard community and two town-hall-style open meetings.

Prior to being university librarian at Queen’s University, Whitehead was associate university librarian from 2004–2010, and interim university librarian from 2010–2011. Previously, she served at the University of British Columbia Library beginning in 1985, holding several posts, including head of its information services division from 1997–2004.