Friday, January 20, 2012

The Harvard Libraries Reorg: What's the Takeaway?

Yesterday many of the librarians at Harvard attended one of three town hall meetings organized by the library transition team there. And from all outside appearances, all hell broke loose. The twitterverse had a field day! #hlth is the hashtag for the backchannel and information and misinformation are still flying today. The most extreme statement was an obviously emotional tweet posted by one attendee, Abby Thompson, who stated that Harvard had effectively fired all of their library staff. As you can imagine, that got people's attention. It should be noted that Abby later pled that she was a victim of the 'drama llama,' but nonetheless the claim made for good fodder. The blogosphere is humming with the news. (See The Feral Librarian, The Jersey Exile, and Lisa Federer.)

Today there is a lot of damage control being orchestrated by the administration and the transition team. (See The Chronicle, The Harvard Crimson, and see the meeting script here. The script was just posted today, labeled as a transcript, but it does not reflect the Q&A that followed the official script.) Obviously Harvard has a vested interest in putting the best possible face on the situation. I imagine the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

While I can only imagine the impact that this sort of thing has on the morale of an institution, and on the lives of those who will be directly affected by the coming changes, I can't say I'm entirely surprised by this move. I am surprised and disappointed at the way it's being handled, but that's another issue. The reorg itself, in a massive library system that is probably rife with inefficiencies just given the nature of a system with so many independent libraries, can hardly be unexpected in an economy turned south. And this has been a process, begun in 2009, that while clearly suffering from a poor communication strategy, was hardly a secret.

Whatever the outcome of the particular situation at Harvard, what does this mean for libraries? One tweet deemed it a death knell for the academic library. I understand these emotional responses. Librarians are passionate about the profession. But you can't have turned a corner in the last year or two without bumping into a webinar, a blog post, a conference program or an article about "The Future of the Library." Yesterday, that future smacked us in the face. It's a future defined by a few truths.

Truth #1 - Library budgets are being hit.
Truth #2 - Libraries are acquiring more digital content and less print content.
Truth #3 - The resources needed for the care and feeding of digital materials are different from those needed for print materials.

In addition to these truths, what are some of the the buzz words and themes in our industry today? Innovation, collaboration, change management, strategic planning, library 3.0. The writing is on the wall! And yet the whole time we're mouthing the words "library of the future" we're putting our heads in the sand and digging in with both feet, paralyzed by the past.

Harvard's radical reorganization is not akin to the day the music died, but it is a harbinger of things to come for many libraries of all stripes. Shift happens. So what I'm asking myself today is, "How do we get out front of this? What can we do as a profession to be change leaders, rather than its victims? How can we minimize the fallout?" Do you have any ideas?