Occupy Harvard received the following op-ed from a worker in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences on the restructuring of Harvard Libraries. Originally written for The Harvard Crimson, she submitted it to Occupy Harvard instead so she could remain anonymous. Concerned about how protected her free speech really is on campus and, like so many of the library staff currently under threat, she worries how words such as these might affect her job. Library workers have described a climate of fear and insecurity surrounding the library transition that has made them reluctant to publicly voice their criticisms of the transition and of the administration.
Restructuring of Harvard Libraries: Who Decides?
by a Clerical Worker in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Harvard
A Harvard undergraduate said to me in a recent conversation that while he and his friends oppose the restructuring of Harvard Libraries as it’s being presented, they are having trouble pinpointing which aspects of the transition to the new library system are most problematic. There are so many technicalities: going from many decentralized libraries to a centralized Harvard Library; the new governance of the libraries; efficiency; shared services; digitization; outsourcing; early retirement of staff; layoffs. How is one to know if these are worthwhile moves or fundamentally detrimental? He further said that President Drew Faust and Provost Alan Garber’s messages to the Harvard community on the restructuring were so vague that it was hard to make sense of what’s happening.
The answer I gave to my undergraduate friend was in the form of a question: Who decides? This is the decisive issue and where the conflict ultimately lies. Harvard’s students, faculty, and staff have little control over the decisions that affect their work and lives, which is a completely untenable situation.
The simple yet important question of “Who decides?” opens up to many more: Did the faculty who depend on the library system have any substantive say on the restructuring? Were students and researchers asked how the libraries can best serve them? And what about the library workers? Was their knowledge of the current shape of the libraries a factor in the restructuring? Was their expertise on how to improve the libraries ever considered? The answer to all these questions is quite simply no, not in any meaningful way.
At the heart of this restructuring fiasco is the fundamental problem of who wields decision-making power at the university. That is, who has the power to make decisions that affect the libraries and the lives of everyone involved and to what end are these decisions being made. Who made the decision that library staff should be cut and why? Where did the directive come from? What are the guiding principles for such decisions? Were these decisions made openly, transparently, democratically? To whom are these mysterious, unknown decision-makers accountable? To the members of the Harvard community? To hedge fund managers? To “efficiency” experts and consultants? Whom? It’s about as clear as mud and it seems the administration wants to keep it that way.
There is neither an academic nor an ethical justification to cut the library staff. Such a loss would only serve to further undermine the library collections and hemorrhage library operations. The aim of the restructuring is cost-cutting pure and simple and our library workers are being treated as lines on a ledger and not as the living human beings who make our libraries the premier institutions they are. The Library Transition Team’s talk of efficiency is disingenuous and a distraction. We are headed towards the further erosion of the quality and quantity of services provided by the libraries–that is, doing less with less. Is this what we want as a research community?
I remind readers that Harvard has an academic and ethical imperative not a corporate imperative. Libraries and universities provide a social service; they are not businesses that function on the basis of profit and should not be treated as such.
So how can Harvard faculty, students, and staff begin to gain control over the decisions that affect their work and lives? As an initial step they are getting together at an open forum on Tuesday, April 10 at 5:00 pm in the Barker Center to independently and critically examine the issues surrounding the library restructuring. Come and participate in this important discussion.