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Books and Budgets

May-June 2010

The future may be digital, but the book is far from dead, says University Library director and Pforzheimer University Professor Robert Darnton. More books are published now than at any other time in history, and the number of new works published each year is growing fast. So, too, is the cost of individual books. Book prices have been compounding at more than twice the rate of inflation, but library budgets have grown slowly. People still prefer to read printed books, and now they also want music, poetry, videos, and online access to the Internet, to electronic journals and specialized databases. Libraries are caught in the middle of this transition. Arguably, the stakes are nowhere higher than at the largest academic library in the world. With a $165-million budget and 1,200 employees, Harvard’s 73 libraries anchor within the Greater Boston area one of the most concentrated centers of learning anywhere in the world.

Because of the University’s scope and scale, the challenges facing its libraries encompass in many ways those confronting all libraries. But Harvard also faces some special challenges. More than 50 separate administrative structures govern those 73 libaries, and this complexity, now being addressed by a task force charged with simplifying it, leads to redundancy, inefficency, and a failure to capture economies of scale in negotiating with vendors (see “Libraries on the Edge,” January-February, page 41). Harvard’s current budgetary crisis has led to cutbacks in all areas of collecting; cash infusions and last-minute negotiations staved off the most potentially damaging cuts this year as President Drew Faust quietly transferred $1 million to the University Libraries from her own discretionary funds last fall; the Arcadia Foundation made a large gift; and Faculty of Arts and Sciences dean Michael Smith rolled back planned cuts to the budget of the Harvard College Library.

Meanwhile, the University’s evolving understanding of itself as a world institution has led to an acute need to collect from areas of the globe in which Harvard research has not been traditionally strong, but where economic and political development has led to a burst of publishing so voluminous and chaotic that it is almost impossible to keep up with the output, as in China; or where markets and communications are so underdeveloped that scarcity and imperfect information make collecting there a special challenge, as in Africa. Pressures to collect in these and other new geographical areas of study, particularly in south and southeast Asia, as well as eastern Europe, have in turn caused anxiety among professors working in other areas because--even as the University expanded its global reach, establishing new centers and programs--funding for other library endeavours was not included. 

Faculty members working in traditional areas use spirited language when discussing what they describe as a competition for limited resources, particularly the humanists, for whom libraries are the equivalent of scientific research laboratories, points out Ann Wolpert, director of the library at MIT. To the extent that trenchant exchanges reflect scholars’ passion for their subjects, well, this is Harvard: “We’d be more worried if they weren’t passionate,” says Larsen Librarian of Harvard College Nancy Cline. But even if the University’s scholarly mandate had remained frozen, the information explosion--new kinds of materials, in novel formats, and in quantities unimaginable even a decade ago--would have led eventually to this point, where keeping up with scholarly output in all its forms is no longer manageable for any one institution alone.