Sarah Thomas, New Vice President for the Harvard Library, Sees Opportunities Ahead

The leader of the University-wide library system shares her vision for effecting strategic change.

Sarah Thomas

Sarah Thomas, the new vice president for the Harvard Library, shared her vision for the institution in an interview with Harvard Magazine during the second week of September, her fifth week on the job. The libraries have passed through a period of turmoil, but she emphasized that the renewed organization is now in a position of strength. (Transitions for Harvard’s libraries have been under way since the release of a report in November 2009 by a Task Force on University Libraries that recommended large-scale change.) In her new post, Thomas heads the shared-services organization established in August 2012 that supports all 73 of Harvard’s libraries and holds primary responsibility for Library strategy and policy. The position reports to Provost Alan Garber.

Thomas is no stranger to the complexities of the place, having twice served on the Overseers’ visiting committee to the University Library (the predecessor organization that included the Harvard Depository, the University Archives, and the Weissman Preservation Center), from 1999 to 2008 and again from 2010 to 2013. She has plenty of first-hand Harvard work experience, too: after graduating from Smith, she began in 1970 as a preliminary cataloger in Widener Library. While earning a master’s in library science at Simmons from 1971 to 1973, she continued at Widener before being promoted in 1974 to head of the departmental cataloging section and then head of computer-based cataloging. She left to pursue a Ph.D. in German at Johns Hopkins in 1975, but since her return to library work, her posts have included service as Cornell University Librarian and Bodley’s Librarian at Oxford (as the first woman, and first non-British citizen, to hold that centuries-old position.) 

Thomas’s appointment, announced in May, came as the Library Board (comprised of representatives from Harvard’s schools and charged with strategic oversight of the Harvard Library) adopted a new University-wide Library mission statement, approved strategic objectives for the organization, and endorsed a new collection-development strategic plan.

Reading a passage from Thomas’s contribution to Transforming the Bodleian, an account of the at times difficult transitions at Oxford’s library during her tenure, one could almost think the words had been written about Harvard. Harvard Magazine asked her about the parallels in an interview (see the Q and A below for edited excerpts of that conversation), during which she made several key points:

  • Her vision is of a library focused on the needs of users.
  • Past problems in the Harvard Library have not revolved around funding.
  • Creation of the first University-wide collections development plan has been a great success and the focus will now shift to implementation of that plan.
  • There will be an emphasis on flexibility to meet evolving scholarly needs.
  • She anticipates an increasing emphasis on providing digital resources.


Harvard Magazine spoke with Sarah Thomas, new vice president for the Harvard Library, in early September.

HM: How do you approach the problem of coordinating large-scale transformation in an enormous academic library? 

Thomas: I try to start with the user at the center. What is it we can do to make life easier for the person who is going to be taking advantage of the library and the library’s work? When you think about what’s happening in the world around us, things are becoming closer together; time and space seem to be condensing as a result of technology, which is allowing us to find new ways of working. 

What does that mean? It means that our students and faculty are globally connected with other research groups, and consuming information from around the world. What you want is to not put up barriers to access to information. So libraries, which have always been very collaborative, are working together to digitize material and make it either freely available or widely disseminated. And you are able to create collections of material that has been dispersed—such as an author’s papers that might be held across multiple institutions—or ideas that are dispersed—what is happening in particle physics, for example—by having the libraries that control that information share it. So my sense of what we might do here at Harvard is connect with other valuable sources of information, and at the same time share what we have with the world. And that is writ large.

Locally, we want to do that for our on-site students and faculty, so that we break down barriers: geographic or by discipline, or sometimes even by category of whether you are an undergraduate or a graduate student or a faculty member. What do we need to do to remove impediments to access to information? Aren’t there ways to transcend those boundaries, whatever they are, either using technology or using best practices, that allow a kind of consistency of approach for people, so that they are not baffled when they go to one library and find out it has a policy that contravenes another library’s policy.


HM: Or perhaps a different naming convention or way of tagging, classifying, or indexing information?

Thomas: Interesting that you should mention that. Many years ago when I worked here at Harvard, in Widener, one of my jobs was to be departmental library cataloger. I think I catalogued in 26 different classification schemes. And shortly after I left, Harvard adopted the Library of Congress classes and then made the move to that single classification scheme. There was some loss in the individuality that brought to people, particularly when something was tailor-made for their particular field, but there was a gain in that we could catalog less expensively and we could get books to the shelves faster.

In almost all decisions in life, it seems to me, you have to evaluate the advantages and the disadvantages. Sometimes you are going to say, “No, this local service is so important, it is absolutely essential for people at the Business School to have this kind of service.” But sometimes it makes sense to figure out where the equilibrium is that benefits the most people. 

HM: What do you see as the primary challenges? We’ve reported on some of the bumps in the process, mostly surrounding staff reorganizations, which you allude to in Transforming the Bodleian as one of the more tricky aspects. 

Thomas: You started off by asking me what are some of the challenges I see. I do tend to be a person who sees more opportunities.

Starting my fifth week, what I have seen is a lot of energy on the part of the librarians, a lot of passion on the part of the faculty members with whom I have met, and a lot of innovation in various parts of the library. I can’t even remember how many libraries I have seen, but I think 26 of the 73. And I have seen wonderful collections, I’ve seen technological innovations, I’ve seen people committed to good service. Those are all great ingredients. So I think what we have to be able to do is sort out how we move forward in a way that is focused on the vision. Why are we doing this? It is not because we like to create boxes on an organization chart. And it is not even because we want to save money. In England they have this statement, "getting the wrong end of the stick." And it just means you didn’t see the problem quite right. 

You started out by asking about Transforming the Bodleian. When I arrived there, there was in the first few months a catastrophic failure to gain planning approval for a depository. The vice chancellor—the head of the university—decided to appeal this denial of planning permission, so we spent another year trying to win the appeal to the city planners, who had denied permission because the sense was this building would be a blight on the dreaming spires of Oxford, a blight on the skyscape. I learned on a phone call from the vice chancellor that this appeal had also been denied. I was between Oxford and Cambridge when he called and told me and asked “Sarah, how are you?” If you have ever been in a car wreck, everything moves in slow motion. I was experiencing this in slow motion. I thought, “What am I going to do, this is really bad. But I don’t want to tell my new boss—he is acting like I’m going to cry.” And so I said, “Oh John, it’s an opportunity.” And so when I got back in my office I thought, “Well, I better see how I make this an opportunity.” The challenge was: how do you not degrade service by moving books further away? I sat there and I thought, “How can I get those books to people faster?” And I couldn’t figure it out. Focusing on getting the books to people was the wrong end of the stick, in a way, rather than on getting information to people.

What I realized was, if I created a division between books that were frequently demanded and books that were seldom demanded, I could send the seldom-demanded books further away, shelve the frequently demanded books in the center of Oxford, and decrease the overall demand for books by going electronic for journals, which is what the scientists wanted. It was one of those Eureka moments when I realized that I was trying to solve the wrong problem. And I think the problem at Harvard—even though it has come on the heels of the market downturn and issues about how much money there is—is not really about the money. Harvard actually spends more money on its library services than any other research-university library in North America. So the question is how we organize ourselves to spend the money so that we can provide outstanding service. And that will be tricky.


HM: Harvard sends most new books straight to its depository, without shelving them on campus. Is that a failure to cope with the stream of new books or is it a success?

Thomas: If you think about it, there is more and more multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research. At the Medical School, they are not only concerned with research into medical topics, such as curing cancer, they are concerned about the ethics of what they are doing. I was listening this morning to a story about a doctor during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina making a decision about which patients in a hospital should be saved. Nothing he learned in medical school years ago prepared him to think about ethical issues as well as we are probably preparing Harvard students now to think about ethical issues. We have scholars all over the University working at the margins of their disciplines, where they intersect with the margins of another discipline. So we can’t always optimize where the book is, because you can’t always predict where the next research trends will be. So the depository, which started as an answer to, “How can we solve our space problem?” is really a brilliant solution for giving multiple libraries access to Harvard’s great collections.


HM: Would you say there is a sense of urgency on campus to implement change? Or does the plan already outlined [a new organizational structure that consolidates shared services and identifies common, University-wide goals] just need to be executed? Do you imagine making changes to that plan?

Thomas: I think that people want to have the right decisions made, and if the right decisions take longer, that’s just being careful, being prudent. On the other hand, we all feel a sense of urgency because things are changing so fast. That is part of modern life. Where I feel urgency is in making services strong for our users.

It is not about how we are organized. I really think that takes us in a direction that is not fruitful because somehow people think there are winners and losers in that. I don’t think it is central versus local. It is really: what is it we want to be, whether it is for one Harvard or one library? How are we going to benefit the most people, the people who have such a stake in their research, their teaching, and their learning?


HM: Do you then envision a ramped-up digitization of certain collections?

Thomas: I expect that we will be digitizing more and more of our collections. What we have discovered through our digitization projects—and I am speaking now for libraries in general, but I am sure it’s true for Harvard as well—[is that digitizing] helps us know what we have, and helps people find what we have—so that is very good stewardship. It helps us take care of what we have because there is often conservation that occurs during the process.

And it’s a sort of renewable resource in the sense that we have the original book or the manuscript or the score. We have the physical object. We have the digital. And we can share [that digital object] with the world. We can do things with it that we couldn’t do with the physical object, because you can search across a whole body of books or manuscripts and mine it in a way that allows new questions to be asked. I remember a social-science researcher talking to me about research he had done. He used to look at the incidence of a disease in a county, because that was the amount of data he could pore through. And then as data became more available and machine-readable, he could interrogate the entire United States about the incidence of this disease and learn about different factors. I think that is what we are going to be doing in libraries as we take more and more of the collections and make them digitally available. As we open [them] up for new types of scholarship.


HM: With a major capital campaign about to be launched, is the library in any way a focal point?

 Thomas: Yes, the library is important in the campaign. When I saw the campaign goals, I could see the library in every one of them. That would be the point I would want to make: that the library is a part of the mission of the University—and figures everywhere. That is the beauty of libraries—they fit into everything. We are part of every discipline, whether you are dealing with medieval books of hours when you are teaching the study of the book, or whether you are on the cutting edge of data-mining or the study of the Internet and society. Libraries are absolutely central to those activities. What I want to be able to do is support the libraries and the schools in a partnership to achieve campaign goals, as well as seek funding overall for the traditional things that libraries are associated with: the acquisition of materials or the organization of knowledge or access to knowledge—and that could be digital or physical access. And then finally, [there is] preservation, the stewardship of the cultural heritage of our civilization.


HM: Do you have any specific plans going ahead? 

Thomas: I’m going around and listening to people. Last year people spent a lot of time working toward a collections policy, a content and collections approach. This year, people need to implement this, take it a step further. So I think there is momentum there. The policy went through a number of iterations and then was endorsed by the library board. I think it is a real success for the Harvard Library. I wouldn’t want to get in the way of success. 

There was another aspiration—to see what role the libraries could play in developing cross-institutional policies with regard to research, teaching, and learning. The goal was not to become entirely uniform, but to surface what interesting ideas there were. I think people will do that.

We need to look at our information technology, and what we are doing with digitization strategies and policies. We need to look at the two sides of the coin—what are we spending and how are we spending it? And where is our money coming from? And then I would say we need to grow the pie so that we can accomplish even more.

We also need a lot more communication. A lot of what has happened in the last few years has been the result of misunderstanding—I think you can’t communicate enough. I’m talking about communication in all directions: to library staff; our immediate users; alumni; and other librarians outside Harvard in the wider world. You are sending different messages to different people. The wider world maybe only needs to know about the collections we are digitizing or the innovations we have implemented, and not about our how we are organizing ourselves. I don’t think people ultimately care that much about it as long as they are getting service. 

I once invited three colleagues whom I respected highly to review my library at Cornell—the head of the Stanford library, the head of the University of Illinois library, and the head of the MIT library. They were there for two days, and at the end of the first we had a little debriefing and they said, “Sarah, people don’t know what your vision is. They don’t know what the mission is.” And I was thinking, “No, no, I invited these people in to help me, and they are telling me I have a problem? How can this be?” And of course, I wondered, “Do people not know what my vision is, or do they actually not want to follow what I am saying?” 

I went home that night, threw myself on the couch. But when I woke up in the morning, I resolved to communicate more. I have to just talk to people more, I have to just listen carefully to what they are saying. I have to repeat back, “This is what I heard you say,” or ask, “What do you think? Can you tell me what it is?” And not make assumptions, because sometimes we assume people are on the same wavelength when they are not. So you have got to test those assumptions. It is possible to do that in a constructive and friendly and helpful way, and that is what I would like to see happening with us.

A lot has happened already, and a lot of constructive things have happened. I think that I’m benefitting hugely from the changes that have occurred, even if they were not without turmoil. But we are in a different place now, and I think we are in a better place. Some of the things to prove it are [the Library Collections and Content Development Strategic Plan approved in late June, emphasizing access to digital content, increased digitization of existing collections, enhanced collaboration inside Harvard and out, strengthening existing collections, filling gaps to meet users’ immediate needs , and development of new collections], and new ways of working. 

Various people have said, “Oh, we never used to interact with certain segments of the library. Now we know much more about what is going on.” There are new activities, new collaborations that are springing up as a result. So I think despite all that churn, it is a healthy organization and it is ready to take off to a new phase.

I’m really, really, happy to be here, and there are a lot of reasons why. This was my very first job after I left college. And you imprint on a great library and nothing else comes close to Harvard. So it is very exciting to be back here in a role where I can be so involved in so many important issues.



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