Wednesday, December 16, 2009


I'm not taking this personally, and I've been treated with respect throughout the process. My job, Librarian in the Rowland Institute at Harvard, is ending. The library is closing, and I do not know whether Rowland will keep the books and journals, but for new information sources the scientists will be on their own (maugre the fact that they have access to possibly the richest electronic collections in the world.)

I have no argument with the decision, given the Institute's financial constraints, while I am mindful of a conversation with friend where I was complaining about work. "Is your name on the sign outside?" he asked. "No." I replied. "Then you have no say," he told me.

I've been at Rowland for just under twelve years, my first professional job following library school. It's a one of a kind institution, conceived as a scientific "Noah's ark" by Edwin H Land after he left Polaroid. At that time, the scientists had free reign to do basic research and try experiments that might not have been funded or possible elsewhere. After the merger with Harvard in 2002, the focus shifted, and the Junior Fellows program was created, giving newly-minted PhDs five years to set up a lab and run experiments with full institute support.

When I got to Rowland, I knew something about science libraries and database searching, but I really didn't know beans about science. At my college, there was "Middle Path, " and on the left side were the humanities departments and on the right side the sciences. With few exceptions, I stayed on the left side. Marshall Frady quotes a story told by Jesse Jackson, that when Jesse was young he got bad grades in French, and his mother admonished him to learn French. When Jesse travelled to Africa, to his dismay, most of the people he met with were speaking French. It was sort of like that for me my first days at Rowland.

But direct contact with the scientists, in the library, at lunch, in the halls of the building, gradually educated me. I learned about their experiments, what they published, what they read, and began to deliver a constant stream of related information to them that I discovered through browsing journals, new sites, email alerts, catalogs and eventually rss feeds and social networks.

I was able to buy whatever books or journals the scientists wanted, and organize database and electronic journal access for the Institute. When we merged with Harvard, the scientists now had access to Harvard Libraries' volumnious resources, and the library budget and subscriptions decreased. Having access to so much information made my job easier, but I received fewer requests and fewer people came to the library.

I'm not a developer or an engineer, but rather a consumer of technology. When blogs and social networks became commonplace, I adopted these tools first as information sources and second as a way of marketing the library and making connections with like-(or even different-)minded people for potentially mutual benefit.

My friend Bill Mayer, librarian of American University, visited me in September, and said "you could do great things with this space." In many ways, I missed opportunities and didn't take full advantage of the freedoms and resources at Rowland. However, I was focused on my patrons, any bit of information that might help them, and I didn't wait for them to come to me. What I've done at Rowland, getting an intimate and detailed knowledge of my patrons' work, can be replicated throughout Harvard and anywhere else, I know.

So what lies ahead? A period of uncertainty (life is uncertain), an opportunity to figure out what I want to do next, and, I've been told, some work for me at the Harvard College Library. No guarantees, but a chance.

I'm a lucky man. What a beautiful building and what great people I've worked with, and the science, especially by the fellows, has been nothing short of extraordinary. Nothing like it in the world, that I know of.

Life on life's terms.


  1. Maybe you know my pop, Bert Halperin, from the Physics Department? He mentioned that some of Harvard's libraries are closing -- I guess he was thinking of Rowland. Sorry to hear about your layoff. Sounds like you have a good attitude, but it still sounds rough.

    Best of luck in future!


  2. Hi Julia. thanks for writing. I've never met your father, though I'm certainly familiar with his work in physics. Yes, my situation at Harvard is not unique; many were laid off at the end of the last year and the libraries are going through restructuring.

    I appreciate your kind and supportive words. While it is an ending, there is a new beginning ahead and I'm just beginning to consider the possibilities. Happy New Year and New Decade. Garrett