Friday, January 20, 2012

The Great Librarian Massacre (and Other Episodes in Harvard Cultural History)*

If you are a librarian and you have access to the Internet, then you've probably already heard that Harvard fired all of its library staff yesterday.

Well, sort of. By which I mean: not really. Which is to say that no one was fired at all, in fact.

Nevertheless I have to say that we Harvard library folk were by and large blindsided when we went to one of three "Town Hall Meetings" yesterday for an update about the Library Transition, as many of us had been cautioned not to expect any substantive news until at least next month. Imagine our surprise then when after a few brief introductory remarks our Senior Associate Provost and Executive Director began outlining some of key points of what's being called the "Implementation Phase" of what's now been a three-year reorganization.

I was in attendance and livetweeting at the first of the three meetings, but I can confirm through other colleagues who Tweeted from the second and third showings that even though we have not been fired or laid off, that the following things were announced:

1. Pending approval of the Implementation Plan by Harvard's President, an overall reduction in library staff is guaranteed- of the jobs that remain, "There will certainly be new roles, requiring new skills" (direct quote)

2. Next month library staff will be informed by local library directors or HR whether or not their jobs as considered to be "local" or part of "shared services"

3. The final disposition of local library staff is a matter for the deans and their respective school budgets

4. Library staff falling into the category of Shared Services will either be assigned to new positions or required to apply for them anew in some informal or formal capacity, with preference going to existing Harvard Library staff

5. The Harvard Library will be offering some kind of voluntary retirement staff reduction incentive,but has not ruled out as well as involuntary retirement staff reductions to meet its strategic goals (edited x2)

6. All library staff have been encouraged but not required to create and submit an Employee Profile, which is meant to highlight one's individual strengths and accomplishments and "inject oneself into the process" (direct quote)

Colleagues, please feel free to correct me if I misreported any of the above!

Anything else at this point is mere speculation. Seeing that President Faust has yet even to approve the Library Transition's plan, even what I've reported above is by no means carved in stone yet. So be careful what you read on the Internet...

That being said, I don't think I'm the only librarian at Harvard who feels that however well-intentioned yesterday's Town Hall Meetings were envisioned to be, the overall effect has been the exact opposite of whatever our Library Transition team was hoping to achieve. The most frustrating aspect by far of the meetings was the lack of concrete answers to any of the natural follow-up questions one would anticipate given the situation. While I understand that what's coming down the pike next month is potentially so big that they felt they needed this meeting to try and prepare us for it, but the manner in which they did it only served to ratchet up the level of anxiety among the attendees.

My primary concern right now, however, is not for my own neck but that of my support staff, who have worked in this office for an average of ten years or more each. After having endured the departure of two coworkers- one in 2010, the other last Fall- and taking on their workloads to ensure that our services to our patrons and other libraries remained unaffected, they are now frightened that even in a shop cut to the bone there is no guarantee that they'll be kept on in the new University-wide shared services. I have heard that the HUCTW has been working with the Library Transition team, and that the union has assured workers that changes such as the ones currently being proposed must be done through "union-management consultation," but that hasn't prevented a gallows-like pall from settling over my office nonetheless.

{EDIT: In a letter to its members, the HUCTW confirmed that it had not in fact been alerted about potential layoffs by Harvard Library administrators, nor had it been informed about the need for library staff to fill out Employee Profiles and possibly re-apply for changed positions within the new University Library structure. Needless to say, this is extremely disappointing news, and I hope that from this point forward the union is appropriately consulted in good faith about any changes on the table.)

So while a lot of what's been said on the Internet has bordered on hysteria, I hope you'll at least forgive those of us Twittering from the epicenter of yesterday's announcements for our gut reactions to the endgame of a very long and painful reorganization process. For a more objective take on the whole brouhaha, Chris Bourg- aka The Feral Librarian- an associate librarian at Stanford University, did some serious yeoman's work in teasing fact from fiction during yesterday's social media shitstorm. I highly recommend her blog post as the best third-party observer to what's going on here in the Harvard Library.

The tl;dr? We're not dead quite yet, though this feels an awful lot like we're walking the Green Mile (or would that be the Crimson Mile?). I promise to keep all y'all informed as to how events proceed, but in the meantime I hope our leadership takes a good hard look at how poorly the day went yesterday and plans accordingly for what will no doubt be even more charged and contentious Town Hall Meetings next month if/when the Library Transition plan is approved. I still cling to a shred of optimism that we can use this reorganization to create something special, but right now I'm feeling like I'm living one Office Space cliche after another.

* Apologies to Robert Darnton, who, ironically enough, was Director of the Harvard University Libraries until last year and who continues to serve on the Library Transition board.

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

What, exactly DOES Robert Darnton do anymore?

Rallouknits said...

Tom, Thanks so much for this summary and for your live tweets yesterday. I am out of town, couldn't get access to the live stream and relied solely on social networking tools to get information. Loved your live comments, esp. "Is Holy Crap a question?!"

T Scott said...

I can certainly appreciate the anxiety and frustration that the Harvard librarians are feeling, and I see that the Harvard administration is now getting a lot of flak for how they've handled it. What you think the administration should have done differently?

Tom said...

@T Scott

1. Don't call a meeting if you can't answer more than 50% of the questions that you know your staff are going to ask when confronted with news like this. Telling three roomfuls of librarians that X, Y, and Z are going to happen, then hedging on the details because "nothing has been decided" is disingenuous at best, bordering on cynical and disrespectful.

2. If Employee Profiles were such an important part of the next phase of our Transition, why are they being rolled out in the 11th hour? During the first meeting, they told us the deadline for filling them out was mid-February- already by the time Meeting #3 rolled around they had pushed this back to 2/29. What could have been a positive and constructive aspect of this reorganization now feels like it was hastily tacked on (which suggests that its actual value in the reorg is less than we are being made to think).

3. If after three years of budget cuts and hiring freezes your best rally cry is "doing more with less," you need to fire your PR people. Harvard needs to be more efficient and modernize its Oxbridge-like organizational structure, we get it. But now is not the time to parrot what the consultants told you, now is the time for some SERIOUS cheerleading. When John Palfrey announced that he was leaving Harvard late last year I knew that the morale-building aspect of the Transition was in serious jeopardy; yesterday's disappointing presentation and today's lukewarm "clarification" from the Powers That Be are confirmation that we are keenly lacking real leadership.

GW said...

Thanks for your calm recap of what went on yesterday. What a mess it was!

I, too, could not help but think of Office Space!

Steve Lawson said...

Thanks for writing this. It was very difficult yesterday to understand what was going on, and this is helpful clarification for us onlookers.

I hope things improve--know that the library community is watching in sympathy.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the coverage, we were following tweets from you and others with interest and commiseration at work yesterday.

One amendment - what I understood was not that all or most of Shared Services will change, but rather that most of the changes will be in Shared Services.

Anyway, telling us it is an opportunity obviously sounds untrue. I agree with everyone who asked why we would be asked for a self-generated profile, when Harvard already has our skills and strengths on file (job descriptions, performance reviews, past resumes, etc.,)

It feels like the point is to make us do something, sort of as a test.

-Overnight at Lamont Lynn

Chris Bourg said...

Tom-
Your summary and analysis is very helpful, and insightful (as always!)
I think you assessment on how the administration could have done this differently/better is spot on! Many lessons to learn here.
Hang in there!
And if sunny CA is appealing to you ... drop me a line!
:-)

Amy B said...

Give the ladies a hug for me, am thinking of them - and everyone else too ( including yourself). Thanks for a thoughtful writeup.

Anonymous said...

In answer to the earlier post regarding Robert Darnton--I'm extremely disappointed in his lack of communication and leadership while he has been in his position at Harvard Libraries. Darnton seems to have retreated into the position of a mere figurehead, communicating only through articles written in the New York Review of Books pitching his idea of a digital public library of America. Now he's simply standing by quietly while the administration he presides over is perpetrating a purposeless, unnecessary, and cruel experiment on the Harvard Libraries and the people who make them what they are. How does he expect to be taken seriously after this atrocity?

Beez said...

It is agonizingly apparent that this is the way libraries/librarians/library staff are being treated, both in academia and the public front. When did libraries fall to the bottom of the list in importance, relevance, funding and respect??? I wish you and the entire staff all the best, hope you are in receipt of the answers you need soon and vow to keep on fighting for libraries to be given the reverence and basic funding they need to continue functioning.

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Anonymous said...

Tom,

As a former Library staff member, of Libraries at Harvard and in Washington, D.C., I'd like to express my strong feelings that there are other ways for the Library systems across the country to tighten their belts, so to speak. Through the years I have watched businesses come and go. The Library "business" is one that's a vital resource that we all must preserve. Eliminating positions and laying off employees is a sorely short sighted response and, in the long term,not cost effective or efficient. Also, trained, long term employees offer more vital experience and knowledge, as well as have a good grasp of the ropes in their respective institutes. Yes, it's paramount for us to keep up with new technology, but, swinging the hatchet is not the way to go.


Such is the way of American life. Tear it down and build it up again from scratch. Keep the old and incorporate the new!

Deb Grier

Anonymous said...

I am a librarian who came to Harvard, then left just 18 months later, shocked and disillusioned at how one of the world's greatest academic institutions treats its librarians and its libraries. I had moved from another country to take the Harvard job; I moved to another state to escape. It wasn't the librarians: I met some of the nicest, smartest, most professional people in the libraries. It was the overall administration. I felt we were valued less than janitors. At least faculty and administrators knew what janitors did. Since leaving Harvard, I have worked for a large public institution where librarians have faculty status. I'll never go back to a place that does not offer it's librarians faculty status. Here, we are truly treated as real equals and colleagues. It's terrific. It cost me over $30,000 to move to Boston, and in leaving, we paid again to move, & my husband gave up a job in a field he hasn't been able to break back into. But we are both still very, very happy about it overall.

jersey bola said...

Thanks so much for this summary and for your live tweets yesterday

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