Yesterday afternoon, the news began propagating across Twitter and other social networks that Harvard University had laid off all of its librarians, and asked them all to reapply for new jobs (with of course no guaranty that they would get them) in a fully-restructured and considerably leaner organization.
The news sent shockwaves across the academic librarian world. If Harvard, not only the flagship university of the United States but also the largest academic library in the world no longer valued its library professionals, what chance did those of us in less prestigious (and less well-endowed) university, college, and research libraries have? It seemed, to some at least, to herald the end of the profession; or, at very least, the beginning of the end.
[Full disclosure: I am a former Harvard University Library employee, having worked at several of Harvard's libraries in the early 2000's. I was not laid off or fired, but rather left for a job at another academic library where I thought (correctly, as it turned out) that my talents and interests would be a better fit. While I do not consider myself particularly "disgruntled"--indeed many of the colleagues I worked with I still consider friends--I would not describe my work experience at Harvard an overwhelmingly happy one.]
With the fullness of time, and as more details have come to light it has become clear that the "Great Librarian Massacre" was not really a massacre. Harvard University has denied that they are laying of all of their librarians and forcing them to reapply. Librarians with subject expertise, and those heavily invested in research would likely not be affected. The cuts would affect primarily technical services personnel--that is, catalogers and acquisitions folks.
Nor, according to sources that I've talked to, was the move a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention: the reorganization process at the Harvard libraries has been going on for over two years. Harvard has a famously byzantine library system comprising over forty libraries, and administratively divided into two separate library systems (confusingly called the Harvard University Library or HUL, and the Harvard College Library, or HCL) has changed very little in terms of organizational structure since the late 19th century.
Now it goes without saying that this largely botched rollout of the reorg has rightfully become a PR disaster for Harvard. Reviews from attendees the "town hall" meetings where these changes were announced are almost unanimously hostile, claiming that management did a poor job of answering any questions, and ended up simply introducing a new level of anxiety among an already jumpy workforce. Nonetheless, while to call this a "massacre" is certainly to engage in a little bit of fear-mongering hyperbole, the announcement of what will most likely be large layoffs among technical services personnel will have repercussions within and beyond the walls of Harvard.
It is no accident that these cuts will hit technical services personnel the hardest. In libraryland, the term "technical services" largely refers, not as one might expect to the IT people (who are usually called "systems librarians"), but rather to the people whose work focuses on the technical details of maintaining and developing library collections. It is an umbrella term that covers mainly acquisitions (people who deal with invoicing, purchasing, gifts, subscriptions and licensing, etc.) and cataloging (people who make sure the millions of items in a library collections can be found through the catalog or, increasingly, other discovery services). These areas of work have deep roots in the library profession (indeed there was a time when "cataloger" and "librarian" were virtually synonymous), but also the areas that have been most affected by technological developments of the last 50 years: digitization and the ubiquitous Internet.
In the old days, say, up until the 1980s, a library's business model was relatively simple: the library bought and owned books of interest to its users, maintained access to its collection via a (largely manual) card catalog. It was a tried and tested model that relied on a few basic assumptions about the nature of information. Information in the pre-digital (or, more accurately, pre-Internet) age was stored in discrete, physical documents that needed to be purchased and stored in a physical place of some kind. Cataloging was largely a matter of transcribing bibliographic information (such as titles, authors, and publishers) derived from various places on the document, and adding the "headings" (generally authors and subjects) needed to facilitate access and retrieval through the card catalog.
The digitization of information, and the rise of the Internet, changed all of that. Information today is no longer exclusively found in physical, print materials. It is increasingly made available through the Internet, in digital format. This has had profound implications on library's service models. For one thing, we are no longer as focused on purchasing books. "Purchase" makes little sense on the Internet, where documents can be infinitely and losslessly copied and downloaded directly to the user's PC or mobile device. So instead of "acquiring materials" libraries have increasingly focused on acquiring licenses that enable them to view and download materials "owned" by someone else. Instead of information collectors, we have become information brokers.
For catalogers, the effects of technology have arguably been more disruptive, even perhaps existentially threatening to the profession. Even before the rise of the Internet catalogers had recognized the value in sharing their work. If a cataloger in California catalogs a book correctly, a copy of the catalog card or record she produces should arguably be just as useful to a library in Massachusetts. Throughout the 20th century the Library of Congress's Cataloging Distribution Service acted as a central clearinghouse for cataloging data (mainly on cards). Beginning in the late 1960s, these bibliographic data were transformed from print to digital format, and the job of storing and distributing these data had large scale bibliographic databases, OCLC (originally Ohio College Library Center, then Online Computer Library Center, now just "OCLC") and RLIN (acquired by OCLC in the early 2000s). This transformed cataloging work, from the "original cataloging" of each book as it was acquired, to the management of pre-existing records (usually referred to as "copy cataloging" within the profession). The work of cataloging has become, increasingly, a matter of managing existing data, rather than creating it anew.
There are clearly many advantages to this type of collaboration and data-sharing--particularly by saving time and money for the library. And no one feels that libraries should go back to all original cataloging and the card catalog. But with the shift in focus from cataloging to data-management, the true value of the cataloger to the library has (at least in my opinion) been obscured for many. We can see it in the shift in vocabulary--with the term "metadata" replacing "cataloging" within the profession. Careful readers will note that the two words are not grammatically the same: "metadata" is a collective noun, "cataloging" is a gerund. And that shift in linguistic emphasis expresses the change in emphasis perfectly: libraries view the catalog, or discovery in general, as less of the result of a local process, the work of individuals, and more of a product. The local knowledge that used to reside in catalogers' heads (what is the specific, unique shape and goals of this particular library collection?) has increasingly been given lesser value than standardized, commercially-produced metadata from publishers and digital providers. With the rise of Google and other non-library discovery services, the role of the catalog itself has been questioned by many.
If the rumors of the "Great Librarian Massacre" at Harvard are even half-true, it would seem that Harvard's administrators are questioning the role of technical services personnel in a big way. They are assuming that centralization of the library system will reveal obvious redundancies in technical services work. This may be true, to a certain extent. Nonetheless, I believe--and not just because my job depends on believing--that despite the undeniable changes in the information and research landscape, libraries still need catalogs and catalogers. They may not being doing exactly the same job in exactly the same way, but the role of mediator, who stands between the user and the collection and manages the discovery of its materials (in all formats) remains vital.
The public perception is, it would seem, that Google and Wikipedia have made libraries themselves redundant (though as one librarian once said to me, "Assuming that all the material now on the Web makes libraries obsolete is like saying that all the stuff in the supermarket makes agriculture obsolete) and because of this many librarians feel we need to out-compete Google. But that is folly. Google doesn't think or act like a librarian, nor should it. (In fact, Google Books and Google Scholar, often pointed to as "library-killing apps" depend in no small part on bibliographic metadata produced and curated by libraries.) There is still an important role for libraries to play in providing structured, locally-relevant metadata to their users. It is just extremely difficult to quantify that value in a way that "bottom-line" minded administrators can understand. Making that case is something that librarians outside of the administrative spheres need to do a better job at.
Because I've already gone on longer than I had intended (one of the great values of cataloging, that I seem to have never learned to transfer to other walks of life, is parsimony) let me wrap up by saying, first: whatever happens at Harvard, for good or ill, I do not think it will have quite the effect on the rest of the academic library profession that some fear. Harvard is, and will always be, unique; and what it decides to do will not necessarily be the model for other universities and library systems. But second, the importance of catalogers, and more broadly speaking, librarians is not necessarily diminishing into nothingness. The environment has changed radically, and there are sure to be plenty of future "massacre-like" events that will painfully remind us of these changes. But librarians do have a future, and I think it may even be a bright one: they just need to accept that it won't be quite the same as the past.
And my thoughts and best wishes are with the Harvard librarians facing this terrible uncertainty right now.
6:46 PM PT: UPDATE: Thank you for putting this diary in the spotlight.