Library Report Irks Humanities Academics

After the recent release of the University’s Library Task Force Report, some humanities professors and graduate students have expressed concern over the document’s suggestion that the Harvard University library system may need to limit future expansion.

The report, which was released on November 12, suggested that the library system unite its 73 different libraries under a common administrative structure and rely more on digital files than on physical books. The report stated that the system can no longer hope to collect all books in every field and must begin prioritizing its acquisitions.

“We shouldn’t pretend that we are maintaining excellence,” said Classics Professor Richard F. Thomas. “The fact is, ownership is really the only way of getting access to most of these materials.”

Members of the Classics Department, which relies heavily on old books for its scholarship, were particularly concerned about the proposed changes.

Among the changes discussed in the report was the possibility of closing departmental libraries within Widener and uniting those holdings into the larger library collection. But doing so would be “a tragedy,” said Andrew C. Johnston, a fourth-year graduate student in classics.


Johnston said that while choosing amongst graduate schools, he was drawn to Harvard in part because he knew that regardless of whether a book was available in circulation, he would be able to find it in the Classics library.

Members of the Classics Department also said they were worried about the department’s shrinking budget for repairing the books within its collection. When pages become loose or a binding breaks, the department is no longer able to guarantee that the book will be fixed.

Thomas said that the Library Task Force review follows several years of declining library resources. Last year, for example, the library faced a 15 percent budget cut, and the system’s largest unit—Harvard College Library—eliminated over 20 staff positions. HCL also eliminated duplicate print subscriptions for digitally available content.

But as administrators look to reduce the costs of storing physical versions of texts, professors point to the inherent value of obtaining hard copies.

English Professor Robert Scanlan said he thinks that the experience of wandering the stacks of Widener “is such a profound stimulus to the imagination.” But Harvard University Library Director Robert C. Darnton ’60, emphasized that “people should not misunderstand the report and take it as a draft for the library of the future.”

In contrast to humanities students’ and professors’ responses to the report, members of science departments said they were less concerned with the proposed changes. Chemistry Professor James G. Anderson said the debate between the sciences and the humanities on this topic has been an ongoing theme of faculty meetings.

“People view the library in very different ways,” he said. “All of those ways have to be respected.”

But Anderson emphasized that the sciences have transitioned almost entirely to electronic resources, which has meant more space for laboratories and lower costs surrounding the physical copies.

“Electrons are a lot less expensive,” he said.

—Staff writer Noah S. Rayman can be reached at

—Staff writer Elyssa A.L. Spitzer can be reached at