Monday, March 08, 2004

What do you entrust to trustees? 

You might think it's money, but not if you're at Harvard, which has students and workers insisting on using their endowment to protect staff jobs.
What would you do with $19 billion? Go on a permanent vacation? Buy an international space station? Cure cancer? Give full-tuition scholarships to the next ten classes of students? Or close two libraries and layoff employees?

If you chose the last option, then your name is probably Harvard.
I know this will be hard for people to understand who are not in academia, but I don't go to the library much any more as a professor. Most of what I need is available electronically and delivered to my desktop. Last night while working on the paper I should be finishing right now I needed a quote from a paper I read a year ago, which of course I could not remember exactly. Ten years ago, I would have driven across town to the library, gotten someone to take the journal off the shelf, copied it, have that person put it back on the shelf, driven home, typed it in. Today: I go to my library's website, open up the search engine to find the article I know I need, and there it is in full-text glory, cut and paste-able. Much quicker, more convenient, and no need for the person to fetch journals off the shelf.

I say this in part to praise our own library, which I think does by and large a great job. And they have a new building, and the building is wonderful too. But. Places where technology have made great inroads mean productivity shoots up, and where demand hasn't shifted out too much, you are going to be able to substitute for some labor. Harvard may be making a very efficient use of its endowment, which you would think is what the donors had in mind when they gave to the alumni fund.