Cataloging Library Needs

Calling for a new library for the sciences and for initiatives by the Harvard College Library...

Not President Eliot's five-foot shelf. By this summer, the majority of Widener's collections will be stored off site in the Harvard Depository. How are users to have access to them?

Calling for a new library for the sciences and for initiatives by the Harvard College Library (HCL) to provide extensive on-line access to all collections, the library committee of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) has issued a report that Nancy M. Cline, Larsen librarian of Harvard College, says "will likely guide much of our planning in the next five years." The faculty as a whole was expected to debate the report at a meeting in mid February.

There are 14 science libraries within FAS, but only three are managed by HCL--Cabot, the primary, general collection in the Science Center; Kummel (geological sciences), in the University Museum on Oxford Street; and Tozzer (archaeology and ethnology), next to the Peabody Museum on Divinity Avenue. The other 11 libraries--for physics, chemistry, biosciences, and so on--are funded and run by the various academic departments and housed in those precincts.

"We haven't been responsible for acquiring scientific materials," says Cline. "Purchases are made out of departmental budgets, and library material has to compete for funds, perhaps with laboratory equipment." The costs and numbers of serial publications and bibliographic databases and other digital information have exploded, and departments have had to cancel journal subscriptions, forgo new acquisitions, and in other ways fall behind. Many of the scattered science libraries have inadequate physical infrastructures; most have no climate control. Several have holdings of rare books and manuscripts that are not being secured in a focused fashion. General preservation needs are not being analyzed, and, indeed, the preservation of electronic resources remains mostly unaddressed because the media are new.

Recognizing the need for better coordination of these collections and for better library services and programs, the College Library established the position of librarian for the sciences in 1997. But much more is wanted. This is not a librarian's dream, says Cline, but the desire of the academic community. "New faculty and graduate students who come to Harvard aren't finding the science libraries as good as some facilities elsewhere, or as good as they expected, and they want comparable service and support," she says. "Dean Jeremy Knowles has committed large sums to science labs and faculty. We can't risk having the library out of sync with that."

The library committee's report calls for "an intense focus on actively coordinating collections and services." The increasingly cross-disciplinary nature of research, in particular, calls for departing from "the long history of subject-focused, decentralized libraries with different mandates, separate and uneven funding, and varying constituencies." (Cline says that participants in the interfaculty initiative on mind, brain, and behavior, for instance, have found that the library lacks material they need. Changes in curriculum as well as research drive acquisition goals; who would have thought a few generations ago that the library today would need a strong collection on jazz, or works in Sanskrit to support Tibetan studies?)

What's envisioned for the sciences is a research-level library, perhaps in an existing building, perhaps in a new one in what is being called the North Precinct, in the midst of other science facilities. "We now need to go beyond this report," says Cline, "and develop firm figures showing what space is needed and what the costs will be."

A second major concern of the committee is access to the collections in general. By 1998 the 11 libraries that comprise HCL had acquired about 8.3 million volumes. Space limitations require librarians to ship more and more material to Southborough, Massachusetts, for storage in the Harvard Depository (HD). "By the end of FY2001, the majority of Widener's collections will be deposited outside Cambridge," the committee notes. "By the end of FY2009, that number will reach 60 percent. In addition, other materials, such as microforms, media materials, and manuscripts and archives are increasingly being stored at HD. It is therefore critical that new and greater intellectual access to those items at HD be a high priority."

The library already has HOLLIS, an electronic union catalog of printed material. Anyone with Internet access can discover what books by or about Emily Dickinson the library owns and where they physically are.

In 1998 the nascent Harvard Union Catalog of Visual Resources debuted ("Digital Union of Images Will Break Boundaries," May-June 1998, page 80). "We are just beginning to climb the digital-images mountain," says Cline. At the summit, Harvard's estimated eight million images in 54 repositories will be searchable on-line, and anyone with Internet access will be able to see what images of Emily Dickinson reside at Harvard.

The library has also created Oasis, a digital catalog of finding aids for archival and manuscript collections. HOLLIS might note that Houghton Library holds manuscripts by Emily Dickinson, but would not describe them in detail. Oasis will.

Peter K. Bol is professor of Chinese history and part of the 24-member library committee. He notes that when material is taken off site to the depository, the idea is to leave a representative sampling of a collection behind. But browsing what's been left behind, and looking at a catalog of authors and titles of what has been removed, is not a reliable way to know the content of a collection. Bol wants to be able to browse the tables of contents, and perhaps the indices as well, of material he might get from the depository.

Cline gives an example of how this might work. Imagine shelves of Latin American pamphlets, fragile with age, stored in Southborough. Their tables of contents are scanned and made available in a digital catalog. If a scholar identifies a pamphlet he or she wants to see, it can be scanned in its entirety on demand. The library committee report declares: "In the long term, we are convinced that the library should explore means whereby users can virtually browse all collections." Bol hopes that the library staff will "move with all due haste" to do this.

How is the report likely to be received by the faculty as a whole? Cline suspects that the loss of close proximity to books and journals in one's particular field caused by the creation of a centralized science library will upset some faculty--a reflection of the larger problem already faced by other HCL patrons.

"The faculty wanted to urge library staff to think about the future, about access and functionality," says Bol. His fear is that because the report was produced by a committee (composed of library staff as well as faculty), and because Harvard committees congenitally dislike controversy, the report has been written so blandly that it will largely be ignored.

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