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.

  • Hi Greg, I was responding to your tweets on this but commenting here is much easier! First, for the sake of complete disclosure, let me clarify that my ultimate professional goal has always been an academic directorship, and I do not hold the MLS. I came close to completing it but life intervened. I know this might be a challenge but I hope it won't be an absolute barrier to someday leading a library.

    That said, I have been fortunate to get to know John Palfrey as he serves on the NELLCO Board of Directors. I think his impact on the Harvard Law Library will be longstanding, even if he is not there to lead it. From my outsiders view, John brought a set of tools, ideas and solutions from outside of the library world and (seemingly) successfully applied them to that enterprise. John was, from the start of his tenure, very forthcoming about his lack of knowledge of the library profession. By his own admission, it was 'alien territory.' But it goes without saying that John's a brilliant guy and a quick study. He listened carefully, absorbed and applied what worked for Harvard. His leadership and management styles seem to have been a welcome change, and staff members I know at Harvard seem revitalized by his vision and goals.

    Frankly, I never thought John would stay long. Not because he lacked an MLS, but because his intellectual pursuits seemed to be leading him elsewhere. But he has been a force during his short visit to our planet (Whoops! I'm claiming the planet even though I lack an MLS. Is that legal?). He has been collaborative across many fronts, local, regional, national and international. He has been a much-in-demand speaker and a high-profile law librarian. So all of that spells success.

    Are there some who may not see it as a success? Yes. There will be some who view John's leaving as evidence that he wasn't committed to the work or the profession, and that an MLS would have made a difference. And I'm sure there will be other arguments as there always have been on this issue. But it looks to me like he was the right guy at the right time, and he's going to leave an empowered staff and a strong leadership legacy to his successor. What more could you want?

  • Suzanne Wones

    To your question(s): "Was this a success? Do you think the HLS Law Library actually benefited from putting someone that comes in from a non-traditional approach?” I would answer an unequivocal YES. I am, admittedly, one of the most biased people who could answer this question but I do believe that John’s Directorship of the Harvard Law School Library was a great success. Whenever you are hiring you want to get the best person for the job; focusing unnecessarily on degrees can cause you to lose or overlook that person. John was a great fit for the HLS Library. He came in aware and open about the gaps in his knowledge and very eager to learn about every aspect of libraries. As he led us through the re-organization he asked us important and difficult questions as to why and how we did what we did. He helped our steering committee address what the library needed to be in the future and what steps we could take to get there. Three and a half years later we are on a path to that future and John has taught us all to keep asking those hard questions and to keep pushing our boundaries. More than anything we benefited from John’s intelligence, vision, and energy. It is possible that a fully MLS certified librarian could have done the same thing for us, but John’s “outsider” status did, I think, force us to think about our profession broadly and deeply.

    Like Tracey, I never expected John to stay with us for very long and for just the same reason she gives. I’m just glad he was in the right job at the right time and that I was able to work for and with him. I’m also glad our Dean & her search committee had the open mindedness to look beyond traditional requirements in order to put him there.

    Suzanne Wones
    Asst. Director for Research, Curriculum & Publications
    Harvard Law School Library