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Harvard, Fair Harvard

Via Tim Armstrong at Info/Law, I learned today that the Harvard Law School faculty voted to create an online open access repository of their scholarship.

To me, the vastly more interesting and provocative part of Tim’s post is a news item that I missed 10 days ago:  Berkman Center Executive Director John Palfrey will become the new Director of the Harvard Law Library (the appointment is actually “Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources“).

Why interesting and provocative?  Not because John is a very smart and dynamic guy.  In fact, because John is a very smart and dynamic guy, the appointment seems almost expected and ordinary — and congrats to him and Harvard!

Instead, the appointment is Interesting and provocative because John lacks a graduate degree in librarianship, library science, or information science.  (His predecessor, the long-serving Harry Martin, received an MLS from — the University of Pittsburgh!)  He has an HLS JD and a Cambridge M.Phil; he’s a very well-trained lawyer and legal scholar who has been immersed in information policy for many years.

Does this mean anything?  Michael Froomkin wrote recently about whether it takes an academic to lead a law school.  Answering Michael’s question: I think that it does, not because academics have some unique skill set, but because the lack of an academic pedigree means that winning acceptance inside the school and the university may be unusually complicated and time-consuming.  (Witness the drama unfolding in Morgantown.)  Does it take a librarian to lead a library?

Harvard thinks not. I’m guessing that John Palfrey persuaded Elena Kagan, the HLS Dean, that the substantive and methodological challenges that librarians confront these days are not significantly different than the substantive and methodological challenges that any manager of a complex information environment confronts.  Not anyone can manage the Harvard Law Library, but there may no longer be anything distinctively “library-ish” about the position.

Is Harvard right?  And if it is, will other schools and universities agree?

9 thoughts on “Harvard, Fair Harvard”

  1. Congrats to John for this position!

    Were you trying to bait me, Michael? 🙂

    Seriously, almost all jobs in a university library demand the skills, knowledge, and networks that a good library school provides.

    But director or dean may be the most obvious exception. Harvard University recently appointed historian Bob Darnton as its library dean. And Michigan has former provost Paul Courant — an economist — as its library dean. By all accounts both of them have leveraged their vast experience working with and in libraries to improve those already excellent systems. Of course, much of what they have to do is raise money. But they also have to set agendas, make policy, and lobby the administration for resources.

    So being a trained librarian is nice, but not necessary.

    I would, however, argue that only the exceptional non-librarian should do such a job.

    In the case of John Palfrey’s new job, he is exceptional. So it’s a great move. John has been in the trenches of the open-access movement as much as anyone. He provides energy, knowledge, experience, and contacts that few others could offer.

  2. To turn the question around: Should law schools consider hiring librarians or other non-lawyer academics to be their deans, even if they lack the three-year degree? After all, it’s just the management of a complex information and labor environment, right? 🙂

    Do you think law schools are more complex or more specialized than libraries?

  3. I’ll take your question seriously, even if you may not have meant it that way. Remember that my post was putting arguments in Harvard’s mind, not necessarily advancing them myself.

    To be successful, a law school dean has to understand and win the confidence of various internal constituencies, has to understand and win the confidence of various external constituencies, has to lead translation and ambassadorial efforts between the two groups, and has to have the vision and strategic skills to move both of them forward, toward a partly unknown future.

    Can an academic from another planet do this in a law school setting? In principle, there’s no reason that it can’t be done, but the learning curve would be particularly steep. It’s one thing to master the culture of a tradition-bound academic discipline. It’s another thing to master that culture and also to master the culture of a tradition-bound professional discipline — and then relate the two cultures to one another in order to benefit graduating students (among others).

  4. I hate Stanley Fish’s op eds in the NYT with a passion bordering on violence, and don’t even like his Derridean deconstructionist work on interpretive communities (his work on Milton is quite fine though). My hate qualifier aside, I ask this honestly: is he considered to be a good dean of FIU Law? He has no JD, and while he seemed to get into the legal academic circles by virtue of being in the right place at the right time with law and literature work (law and lit is on the decline in law schools, but from how aggressively English grad departments push it you’d never know). He seemed to get the deanship of FIU Law after being dean at U Illinois at Chicago, so I don’t question his administrative skills. But I don’t really get how it is he’s a legal scholar, much less a law school dean.

    But if he’s doing a wonderful job fundraising and supporting the particular mission of law schools, then I will shut up. However, as a former English lit person who very nearly went to English graduate school, I will say that the disciplines are different, as are the academic environments and institutional cultures/values. So this is a tall order for any non-law dean. Law schools are very particular, and while I argue for increased interdisciplinarity and engagement with university life and intellectual community, I am very much in support of some of these idiosyncrasies–the ethos of being a “professional” school designed to train professionals with the appropriate ethics and standards; commitment to the principles of justice and normativity (we do not merely describe, we prescribe!); community lawyering and public service. There is something to do in addition to something to think about, and there’s always ways to do it better, while philosophers may debate how one might go about thinking better.

    One need go no farther than to recall the criticism of “academic Taylorism” to the idea of reforming legal education that Frank’s post brought up to show this divide between the law and other disciplines. It made me want to smack my head on the table thinking “those crazy lit majors!”

    Nota bene: I am a liberal, and totally down with post-modernism, but you know, within reason. Don’t hate me for being a hater.

  5. What Harvard hired was a change agent needed in a field that is radically changing because the information environment is changing. Bravo for them. I suspect that if Harvard had found a suitable “change agent” with a library degree, Harvard would have considered the candidate.

    The real question is whether law librarianship as profession is providing dynamic leaders with the appropriate skill sets for the changing information environment, and even if it is providing such individuals are they visible, successful and being marketed (does the system encourage such individuals?).

    It is my opinion there are a problems on a number of levels–educational, culture, and institutional–within librarianship that may limit both its effectiveness and the perception of its relevance.

    With respect to education, there are high-end programs such as the University of Illinois or Chapel Hill which emphasize the information science. In my own program at the U of I, I took courses in Information Economics, Knowledge Management, Competitive Business Intelligence, and Human Computer Interface. Many of my professors did not have Library and Information Science Degrees–but had PhD’s in Sociology, Engineering, Business and Philosophy. Although at the time, I thought I was just taking courses from the best professors and to satisfy my interest in information theory, with no apparent application, these course turned out to be key to my management philosophy and academic pursuits.

    Sadly, too many of my colleagues have an experienced an understimulating library school experience which can be characterized by routine boredom and going through the paces to get “the union card” of being a librarian.

    Secondly, the culture is a problematic. Law librarianship has been stable for a hundred years. Individuals were attracted to it because of that stability, but that’s all having to changes. Some great librarians like Dick Danner have embraced change (“change or die” is Dick’s mantra).

    However, without realizing it, many librarians act in a way and are embedded in a culture preserving the status quo, and sadly innovative ideas, experiments, individuals are sometimes discouraged and suppressed. We do this with collections, management styles, personnel (hence hand wringing over the non-librarian director at Harvard), and opposition to legislation (don’t even get me started here).

    I’ve seen ideas get punished and candidates ignored because they were threatening and outside of the box. However, as I have said, there are many places that can be held up as models of openness and many exemplary librarians, who could have gone to Harvard.

    Finally, there is an incentive problem–not just salary, but faculty status, recognition, creative assignments, travel funds, etc. Often there is no incentive for scholarship, below the rank of director. Sometimes it as seen as detrimental to library duties. Many librarians don’t want to do it. But now more than ever, because of the information environment, not only the law librarianship profession needs it, like never before, but the wider professions of general librarianship and law need it as well. The problems are not with lack of recognition with law, but recognition within law librarianship (why is there no award for scholarship outside of publishing in Law Library Journal?). Library scholars are even seen as threatening by some and frank conversations about the need are even discouraged.

    Extending beyond library scholarship there are problems with incentives. Some question hiring former practicing attorneys (because they are “failed attorneys”) or candidates with unusual backgrounds (such as innovative distance programs–which often surprisingly have better students in them).

    Happily the U.S. News and World Report has recognized librarianship as one of the best professions to go into (and law as one of the worst). Perhaps there is hope.

    Paul D. Callister, JD, MSLIS
    Director of the Leon E. Bloch Law Library
    & Associate Professor of Law
    University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law

  6. You must still be too close to literary theory! There was a time that I cared about the numerous ways I thought Fish was wrong about this and that and if I had read his columns at that time, I would have probably been bothered too.

    But now — egads! — I find the Fish columns slightly amusing. When reading them, I recall my earlier days and ask myself what I think Fish, the literary theorist, would think of Fish, the NYT opinion columnist. E.g. does Fish actually have an opinion, or is his s0-called opinion just what my interpretive community is bringing to the authorless text? And after all: isn’t everything on the NYT just an opinion?

    Additionally, just look at what he’s writing about half the time. His latest column is on cars and sexual fidelity, and he drops a reference to the end of the first Star Trek movie. All I can say is that this is *exactly* the kind of thing that one would expect and hope Stanley Fish to write about. And, if I have nothing better to do, I can find it pleasant to see where he’s gone off to now in order to confuse himself.

    Don’t hate *me* for not being a hater!

  7. I could continue bite my lip, but now having seen this rich discussion even a few days late, I am compelled to comment. Despite the richness, it’s missing a remark or two (or three).

    I have no doubt that Palfrey is well qualified to run an operation even as complex as the HLS library, although the discussion here gravitates around the difficulty of getting a grip on the notion of qualification. It surely doesn’t help to ask, as Prof. Vaidhyanathan does, whether librarians qua librarians can run law schools. This question just confuses the matter by deploying a figure of symmetry that neglects the pressure placed on the intangible in question. Can we measure qualification with a reliable degree of precision? Not if qualification entails the instillation of “confidence” and trust, diplomacy, the right blend of “cultures,” and such. These are qualifications that have as much to do with all of the parties involved in the operation as with the director candidate him- or herself.

    I was disappointed by the announcement only because I fear the consequences for libraries of a naïveté that pervades much of the technology and policy realm in which Palfrey has made his career. Truly beneficial technological advances are largely promises that remain virtual, yet I sense at present too enthusiastic an eagerness among the information science crowd to overlook their drawbacks.

    I also regret Mr. Callister’s perpetuation of stereotypes like “[l]aw [or any other kind of] librarianship has been stable,” or “librarians act in a way and are embedded in a culture preserving the status quo.” In my experience, it is simply not so that libraries are entrenched or librarians resistant to change. Libraries are among the few institutions where change is the order of the day. Libraries and librarians continually learn, adapt, and improvise–to new technologies, but also to demographic shifts, economic crises, and unpredictable tastes–and these are behaviors not emergent only since the advent of the ‘net or the web. Libraries have always been about the vagaries and vicissitudes of technology or, more broadly, stuff. Librarians have always focused on best adapting this stuff, the material embodying the information or whatever else of interest it might contain. This is one salutary lesson about libraries I hope Palfrey learns early on. It will serve him well.

    As for Fish, I am always tickled to learn that he continues to exercise his power to irritate. I don’t believe, however, that he is or has been Dean at FIU’s law school. (As far as I know, Leonard Strickman has always led the young school.) His Times pieces are hit-or-miss, to be sure, and less chewy than his literary theoretical or academic professional essays. But there’s no question that he is simply a brilliant scholar with a matching sense of humor. Belles Lettre has it wrong, though, when she pegs him for a “Derridean deconstructionist.” His interpretive community work was more aligned with reader-response work in literary theory, and Fish was often as critical as laudatory of Derrida and the like. He did, I admit, write a wonderful book, Self-Consuming Artifacts, which in many respects anticipated the deconstruction wave in the USA, and its very title certainly reflects the dynamics of texts with which the Yale School liked to play, but it was mostly a series of (sublime) exercises in reader-response work. If Ms. Lettre requires a more reasoned, but no less playful, tone of lit crit, she ought to explore Geoffrey Hartman, a man whose spirit is closer than Fish’s to Derrida, but whose worries about the academic humanities are prompted by experience and “real world” circumstances.

    So, Dick Danner is indeed an exceptional librarian and scholar, but not because he is the only proponent of change. He is simply one of the most visible and articulate among them…rather, us.

  8. Just FYI, Stanley Fish is most definitely NOT the Dean of FIU’s Law School, nor has he ever been. He is simply a member of its faculty. Leonard Strickman has been the Dean of the FIU law school since its founding in 2002.

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