Skip to content

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?