Harvard Layoffs Threaten the University’s Backbone: Libraries

Harvard has 73 libraries that comprise the largest private library collection in the world. The library system attracts researchers from around the world, a major draw for attracting the best faculty in all fields. From ancient maps to personal effects to photography collections, not to mention millions of books and journals in multiple languages, the materials of Harvard’s libraries are the keystone supporting billions of dollars in research grants awarded to the Harvard community each year.

Such a large collection is unusable without librarians and library staff to catalog materials and help researchers sift through the mountains of information. Most research using the Harvard library would be impossible without the aid of library workers.

Yet the Harvard administration feels its libraries are a drag on finances, as they do not directly create revenue. Library closings and staff reductions have been part of a continued corporatization of the university, begun under former President Larry Summers (who later was appointed to head President Obama’s National Economic Council). The focus on revenue and serving corporate ends has accelerated under current President Drew Faust’s recession-bound tenure.

In January, Harvard called a “library town hall” to announce that “the library workforce will be smaller than it is now”—by July. The news fell like a bombshell on close to 900 employees, both union members and managers, who still do not know how many people will lose their jobs.

Jeff Booth, a library assistant for over 25 years, said, “It affects you physically. You think that the prospect of losing a job is just a mental thing, but it makes me physically sick when I think that in six months I may not know how I’ll be able to help my children.”

Harvard libraries have already seen layoffs. In 2009, the administration laid off more than 275 workers. In every department, workers were asked to take on more tasks. Harvard claimed poverty as the recession caused its endowment to fall from $36 billion to a mere $25 billion. But in fiscal year 2011 the endowment grew 21.4 percent to $32 billion.

Library for the 21st Century

Harvard set the goal in 2009 of “creating a library for the 21st century.” Many assume this means removing books because “everything is online now.” However, more books are published in print now than ever before and often electronic resources require just as much labor to provide as physical resources.

The role of a library is constantly changing, but it continues to require substantial human labor.

Harvard’s present library system grew as schools and departments created their own libraries in order to focus service on a specific community.

The transition emphasizes centralization of “shared and technical services” such as interlibrary loan, cataloguing, and preservation. But in the past “shared services” has meant fewer jobs and bigger workloads.

The 2009 layoffs hit libraries particularly hard; 21 percent of library staff either took early retirement or were laid off. Workloads increased for those left.

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Ed Dupree, 57, an assistant librarian for 19 years, describes the changes: “My workload has doubled since the layoffs of ’09, and gotten more complex. I do my old duties plus those of my former supervisor, who took the forced retirement. My department is backed up and service has inevitably declined.”

The service problems mean longer waits for materials, frustrating searches undertaken without aid or appropriate resources, and in some cases materials being mis-categorized and effectively lost forever.

Another longtime worker complained of the dumbing down of his job since 2009: “Many of the meaningful tasks of my work have been outsourced.”

How to Respond?

At the next meeting of the library transition team, the Harvard No Layoffs Campaign, a rank-and-file group of members of the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers/AFSCME 3650 (HUCTW), met the downsizers with a picket of 20.

The No Layoffs campaign reached out to local media and the Cambridge City Council. The Student Labor Action Movement and Occupy Harvard took up the cause and formed close working relations with the campaign.

Even without official union endorsement, more than 200 workers, students, faculty, and community members demonstrated against layoffs on February 9. SEIU and UNITE HERE (the second and third biggest unions on campus) were invited and sent unofficial messages of support.

Three days later, Occupy Harvard began a week-long occupation of the main undergraduate library. Students camped out in the café area and used the space to host discussions with library staff and the No Layoffs Campaign.

The HUCTW leadership, which champions a policy of jointness with management, never reached out to any of these groups. Instead, it met with library transition leaders “to get more information and express our serious concerns. …In our union’s experience, it is nearly always possible to meet the same ends without any involuntary layoffs.”

The HUCTW contract is set to expire June 30, yet HUCTW officials insist that layoffs are not a primary concern for upcoming negotiations. HUCTW members have no way of challenging this outlook except through outside channels, as twice-yearly membership meetings rarely turn out more than 1 percent of the membership.

Joshua Koritz is a member of HUCTW who has worked in the Harvard library system for six years. You can show your support for Harvard library workers by sending a letter of protest to president [at] harvard [dot] edu with a copy to huctw [dot] info [at] huctw [dot] org and harvardnolayoffs [at] gmail [dot] com.