Monday, May 24, 2010

New Directions at Harvard

It's been a tough year for library budgets. I don't know of any library whose acquisitions budget has kept pace with the inflation in the cost of materials, both print and digital. The budgetary situation has led to my announcing a new policy--we add no new Thomson Reuters titles in print because of what I consider to be the outrageous costs of supplementation, barring exceptional circumstances. Actually, my library is relatively lucky--we have had no layoffs--and are able to replace staff members who leave. The glass really is half full.

This is why I was interested to read an today's Boston Globe an article about Harvard University Library's recent actions to deal with "an unprecedented budget crunch." I always thought of the Harvard libraries as having nearly unlimited resources; this was probably never the case, but it certainly isn't true today. "...[T]he days of accumulating every important title and artifact under the scholarly sun are over for Harvard's labyrinthine system of 73 libraries." How is Harvard dealing with its budget problems? By emphasizing access to information over ownership, as many libraries with fewer resources have already chosen to do. Harvard has cancelled over 1,000 journals in favor of their online equivalents, and it is working actively to "collaborate and share acquisitions" with other university library systems. Harvard has already forged an arrangement with MIT which allows students access to both schools' collections, and it may join a library consortium for the first time. I was struck by Harvard's high-quality service to students, who can "sit in their dorms and order books directly from their computers to be delivered within 24 hours to the library of their choice from the Harvard Depository, a high-density storage facility ..." Sometimes the materials that are needed can be downloaded by students "or the library will scan relevant book chapters and e-mail them." Harvard is also working actively to digitize its collections.

Change is also afoot at the Law Library under the leadership of its new director, John Palfrey. "Harvard Law School is in discussions with other law schools about having each school collect in specialized areas." Other changes would be even more profound:

'Libraries have to think of themselves as innovation centers, and not just repeat what we have done in the past,’ said Harvard Law professor John Palfrey, who is a leading a project to shape the future of the school’s libraries.

Palfrey has added engineers, statisticians, and graphic designers to the law school library staff. His team is working on a Web application that browses a virtual bookshelf with works stacked against one another to re-create the experience of wandering through musty stacks and serendipitously stumbling upon titles.

The library is also planning to build a virtual reference desk, where students who rarely seek the help of librarians can solicit research advice without having to set foot in a library. Librarians would assist students through e-mail, instant messaging, text messaging, and Skype.

The idea of the library as "innovation center" is one that appeals to me, and is a model that will help to ensure the library's continuing relevance in the era of electronic information.

No comments: