Letter from a Harvard Library Staff-person

We received permission to post this lovely letter from Lisa Carper, a Tozzer Library Cataloging Assistant. Letters like this one (and this one) illustrate some of the “behind the scenes” work that library patrons are mostly unaware of, and really underscore the dedication and commitment that the Harvard Library staff have to their work. We hope the Transition Team — to whom this letter was originally addressed (and which, a week later, remains unanswered) — is aware of the vital human element that truly is the lifeblood of the Harvard Libraries. We hope the Transition Team takes the time to read this letter and responds appropriately.

Dear Transition Team,

I can’t begin to describe the anxiety my colleagues and I feel every time we get an e-mail or any sort of information from the Transition Team.  We are bombarded with upbeat, jargon-laden “updates” about what the new Harvard Library will look like, what it will accomplish for the reputation of the University, how it will move Harvard forward into the brave new world of centralization and shared resources and fewer staff and more outreach and better communication with all the libraries in the whole world, etc., etc., with Harvard University coming out on top as the shiningest example of perfection in the organization and dissemination of knowledge.

All of these are good ideas.  All are necessary.  Except, in my opinion, fewer staff.  Who is going to move Harvard from where it is now to where we all want it to be in the future? There seem to be plenty of new hires and new positions created at the top of this Library structure.  I have read many e-mails about new hires: brilliant, excited new Heads & new Associates for this and that, all ready to do … what?

Has anyone on the Team cataloged a book, or researched, quickly, where that one pamphlet on a tiny tribe might be found for that anxious professor or researcher who is at Harvard for at most a day or so? Does anyone know what it takes to move a 100 year old, 300 volume serial from one place to another? And keep it findable and searchable (even in google) and take extra care with it so it doesn’t disappear into the black hole of the Harvard Depository?  Does anyone know how many books have been permanently “lost” at HD because of hurried, rushed, subpar work during the transfer process? Because of cuts in staff and simply not enough time or people anymore to do it right?

I haven’t seen anyone, or heard of anyone, coming into my library and seeing what it takes to get books or any other media from the vendor to either the shelf, or posted on an iSite, or to another library or HD, or or even just to see how everything has to wend its way through OCLC, ALEPH, and many, many other steps before it is ready for public use. Not because we are hanging on to every possible step in the process, because darn it, that’s our job and it better not change, but because right now this is what the process is and we are working it the best we can, so that all of our material is accessible and does not get lost forever.  Because the huge majority of us care more than you can ever know about the quality of our work and the pride we take in Harvard’s collections.

Maybe this will be done differently and more efficiently in the future. I hope it can be, without losing access and quality control.  But the very people who know all of the systems inside and out, who have relationships with tiny vendors (not everything can be found on google) nurtured over years, who are best in the position to move and keep track of all of Harvard’s precious collections carefully within this new Harvard Library system, are terrified and uninformed about what is happening and threatened with losing their jobs.

There is such a breadth and depth of knowledge within the library support staff that could easily be used to make the new Harvard Library a reality and a rousing success without cutting a single job.  We are already at bare-bones staffing level in my library, and I hear the same thing from everyone I talk to.  Don’t fire us. You need us. Put us to work, give us new tasks, new ideas, new technology — we are knowledge junkies, we love drowning ourselves in books, media, anything containing the written or spoken word, and we can do anything you throw at us, in more languages than you even knew existed, better than you. Or anyone you might hire to take our place.  We know the collections. We can change the old library into the new Library while maintaining complete intellectual and physical access to the material.  I have learned, quickly and efficiently, dozens of new databases, new rules, new computer systems, new search methods and new technologies in my almost 20 years at Harvard not only because I have to, but because I enjoy learning.  For its own sake.  That’s what makes a librarian (or in my case, library paraprofessional) tick.  That’s what I love.  And I’m not alone, not by a long shot.  Everyone I work with shares the same passion.

I work at Tozzer Library.  We are being shut down at the end of June.  We have to move 140,000 books to HD and 2o,000 books to William James Hall in 5 months.  Working as fast as I can and taking as many shortcuts as I dare, I can process maybe 400 books a week. Our collection is old, priceless, and doesn’t perfectly fit any sort of processing “system” — there are too many variables and exceptions to almost all of the material. Our staff has shrunk so much in the past several years that there is only one full-time cataloger left and she is also serving as Head of Technical Services as well as doing everything else the head cataloger does, plus supervising the emptying of the building, which is more than is humanly possible.

My job as Cataloging Assistant (unfortunately, the last one standing) was cut last fall by 5 hours, to 30 hrs./week.  I don’t know why. My job for the next 5 months is working only on moving books to HD. We have been given 30 more hours of cataloging help for 5 months — not to help move the 160,000 volumes but just to try and keep up as much as possible with the new material still coming in.

It’s a tremendously depressing feeling to face a task so Herculean in scope with so few resources upon which to draw.  Yes, we do have a small outside team (3 people) that was brought in to deal with “simple” HD material.  They are not familiar with the collection but are doing the best they can. I imagine as the deadline draws nearer everything will be deemed “simple” and simply be slapped with an HD sticker and shipped out.

We have been told to hire and train more students for extra help; this is far beyond their capabilities, interest, and motivation, which simply means hours spent “dumbing down” projects for them so mistakes in transferring are limited as much as possible.  It is a colossal waste of time for everyone concerned. Even the brightest students cannot immediately become librarians, nor should they be expected to.

We don’t need more student workers. I know they cost less. But we need more catalogers and other library staff.  We need people who know what they are doing.  We need all the steps taken towards forming the new Harvard Library to be done with the utmost knowledge and care by the people who have the most invested in the outcome and who have the expertise and experience to do it right.

Please be more forthcoming about what the future holds for us.  Please don’t send happy e-mails around unless no one is going to lose their job.  This is a devastating time for the entire library staff and we are all just waiting for the hammer to fall –please don’t forget that.

Thank you.


Lisa Carper
Cataloging Assistant
Tozzer Library


11 comments on “Letter from a Harvard Library Staff-person

  1. Jeff says:

    Brilliant letter. This is happening in many libraries, including the one I work in.

  2. Sylvan says:

    So well said, thank you. Over at 625 Mass. Ave. we have seen the same kinds of things. Stopgaps and shortcuts are touted as increasing “efficiency” but have resulted in degredations in the quality of the catalog as well as more lost items. There is actually extra work created, in the form of training, supervision, and in many cases cleanup and remediation.

    Paraprofessional staff, like professional librarians, bring a wealth of knowledge to their work; multiple languages, deep subject-area knowledge, often advanced degrees of various kinds. Many are alumni of top universities. Increasingly, our jobs require a broad knowledge of technology- including everything from social media platforms and technology troubleshooting to databases, computer networking and programming. Much of this receives little official recognition, perhaps in part to keep library staff positions classified unusually low on the pay-grade scale compared to comparable jobs in other areas of the university.

    This chronic under-valuation may leave upper management with the impression that our jobs are relatively low-skill, generic clerical positions which can be performed by anyone who can type 35 wpm and has a degree (College Degree Preferred, not required). But without the far broader range of skills and knowledge that we actually bring, as well as our long term commitment to doing quality work, the degradation of library services and collections will continue.

  3. Julie says:

    As an alumna who was also a student worker in the Harvard Library system, these changes are extremely concerning to me. One of the top reasons to attend Harvard is because of the vast library resources, many of which are too old to even be part of the Library of Congress. Please do not destroy our University in this way. The long time staff who work there do so because they love to help make resources available to students, and they are irreplaceable with newer, more tech savvy people who care more about digitizing than preserving Harvard’s legacy. You cannot begin to fathom the wealth of knowledge you are losing during this “transition”. Please correct this mistake before it is too late.

    • fellow alum & library worker says:

      Please tell your fellow alums about what’s going on. I don’t think the people making these sorts of decisions are going to listen to students or even faculty. They are motivated by the bottom line. Concerned alums threatening to donate their money to worthier causes might get their attention.

        • Alison says:

          Try to understand that it is not only tusoirt traffic that is being effected. Due to the Occupy Harvard movement, the students are also keeping those of us who live in and around Harvard Square who regularly cut through Harvard Yard out. Sure, it’s the administration who decided to restrict access, but aren’t you just perpetuating the problem because everyone knows they won’t budge? Just think about how hypocritical you are being an aspect of a university for the 99% is allowing the 99% to access and use school grounds just like everyone else.

  4. Jeff says:

    No Layoffs! Stop outsourcing! Keep Tozzer open! Rehire laid off workers from ’08/09 mass layoff.

  5. Library Staffer says:

    When did they announce that Tozzer was closing? This is the first I’d heard of it.

    • Crasta says:

      It isn’t. The Tozzer collections are being moved to St. James Hall while Tozzer is “renovated,” whatever that entails, much in the same way the Fine Arts Library si temporarily housed in Littauer.

  6. Nobody I. Particular says:

    It is sad that people in general and in particular alums from such a bastion of knowledge, alums who are known to seed the best jobs of our workforce have not been able to find the words to describe what has been happening to jobs of this caliber and higher over the past decade until they see it happen in their own college library, REALLY?

  7. […] sono ancora completamente noti. Nell’era dei blog degli Occupy, è facile mostrare a tutti la lettera di una bibliotecaria specializzata, Lisa Carper, che sembra quasi parlare a nome dei bibliotecari di tutto il […]

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