There were many eyebrows raised in 2008 when John Palfrey was appointed the new Vice Dean of Library and Information Resources at Harvard Law School. Many questioned whether a man without a Library Degree (he does have a JD and a Masters in Philosophy) could run one of, if not the most, prestigious Law Libraries in the world. After a three and a half years stint in the job, Palfrey is now leaving HLS to go to become the Head of School at Andover in July of 2012. The question that this outsider would like to ask those that worked with Palfrey, and those that attended HLS during the Palfrey period is – Was this a success? Do you think the HLS Law Library actually benefited from putting someone that comes in from a non-traditional approach?
How well did the experiment of asking for all HLS law library staffs’ resignation so that they could be reassigned to fit the goals of not looking at the library’s mission as building the best collection of books in law, but rather as “How do we make information as useful as possible to our community now and over a long period of time?” What types of changes has HLS law library taken on that was an extension of this new mission statement?
I’ve argued in the past that having a non-librarian in charge of a law library is a unique way of running it, but not necessarily a bad thing (or for that matter, not necessarily a good thing, either.) From those of my fellow law librarians that know Palfrey (as I have only met him in passing) they have many good things to say about him. Many have also mentioned that it is good to shake up tradition from time to time in order to see if it really stands the test of time, or if it is simply an old way of thinking and whose time has passed.
HLS isn’t the only law library to be lead by someone without an advanced degree in librarianship, but it is the most well known. I think that there should be a serious look at how the Palfrey era compared to how other academic law libraries fared in the same period. Was there some strategic thinking that happened during this period that made HLS law library better? Should other academic law libraries copy this model? Could the idea of having someone from outside the profession be extended to other areas? If we could suspend the ABA and State Bar requirements, would it be better for the Law School President to be a non-lawyer – perhaps a former Senator/Governor/President/CEO? Someone with business or political experience could shake up the establishment and make it a better overall experience for its community? As someone in a law firm, could the same be said for us? How about a large law firm being run by someone that was a successful CEO or Financial Market Guru?
Obviously, I have more questions than answers here. I’m actually quite curious as to how those at HLS think this period of having someone of John Palfrey’s talent in charge of their prestigious law library went. Is is something that HLS will repeat? Or, was Palfrey kind of a one-off type of guy that was just the right person at the right time, and may not be repeatable?
I do wish John Palfrey the best of luck in his new job of handling all those High Schoolers!! As a parent of a Freshman, I just can’t imagine the stress of handling 1,100 gifted and talented students and the parents that pay up to $42K a year in tuition. It would be interesting to see if Palfrey’s first order when he arrives in July of 2012, is to ask for every Andover employee’s resignation in order to realign the goals of this very traditional institution to better serve the needs of its community? That would be interesting to follow.