Sidney Verba

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Sidney Verba (born 26 May 1932, New York) is an American political scientist, librarian and library administrator. His academic interests are mainly American and comparative politics. He was the Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor at Harvard University. He also served Harvard as the director of the Harvard University Library from 1984 to 2007. As he gave notice of his intention to retire in 2006, Verba observed: "Academics are the only people I can think of for whom this sentence makes sense: 'I'm hoping to get some time off so that I can get some work done.'"[1]

Harvard faculty[edit]

As a member of the Harvard faculty, Verba's contributions to the life of the scholarly community extend beyond the realm of his academic discipline or his administrative title. For example, even though he "retired" in 2007, he continued to chair a University Committee on Calendar Reform which had begun its work in 2003. This committee was composed of students (undergraduate and graduate) and faculty members drawn from across the University’s Schools and Faculties. In 2008, the Committee's efforts reached fruition as Harvard President Drew Faust announced the adoption of a coordinated academic calendar that synchronizes the academic schedules of Harvard’s 13 Schools. Verba's committee managed to preserve the traditional eight-day reading periods for undergraduates, one of the best features of the former calendar, while eliminating impediments to student cross-registration. No less important, the Verba committee's work helped to align Harvard’s calendar with those of most colleges and universities in the U.S., making it easier for Harvard students to compete for internships, study-abroad experiences, and work opportunities during breaks and summer vacation.[2]


Harvard President Derek Bok named Verba to be director of Harvard University Library in 1984; and when news of Verba's retirement was received in Massachusetts Hall, Bok observed:

"Professor Verba has led the Harvard libraries during one of their most transformative periods in University's history. ... When I appointed him more than 20 years ago, we were only beginning to realize what the revolution in information technology would mean. Sid's foresight has helped to preserve our valuable collections and opened Harvard's vast resources to scholars, researchers, and students throughout the world. I believe that generations of students will benefit from the doors that Sid has opened." -- Derek Bok.[3]

When Verba retired from the post, he had served longer than anyone else who had held the title of director of the University Library; and not since Thaddeus Harris, whose tenure (1831-1856) straddled the card catalog revolution of the 19th century, had anyone spent so long at the top of Harvard's libraries.[1]

Four specific areas in which Verba's contributions at Harvard have become the model for other academic and research libraries:

  • HUL's "Harvard Depository" (HD) -- a "sophisticated way" of addressing the problem of needing to send books off campus.[4]
    • With a fully digitized collection, "Harvard users gain online access to the full text of out-of-copyright books stored at HD. For books still in copyright, Harvard users could gain the ability to search for small snippets of text and, possibly, to view tables of contents. In short, the Harvard student or faculty member would gain some of the advantages of browsing that remote storage of books at HD cannot currently provide.[5]
  • HUL's Digital Initiative—influencing the ways libraries see themselves as responsible for creating and managing digital content.[6]
    • "Plans call for the development of a unique union catalog linking the Google search engine with the online HOLLIS (Harvard Online Library Information System) catalog (, thus furthering retrieval of information on the location and availability at Harvard of works identified through a Google search. This would merge the search capacity of the Internet with the deep research collections at Harvard into one seamless resource-a development especially important for undergraduates who often see the library and the Internet as alternative and perhaps rival sources of information.[5]
  • HUL's Open Collections Program -- something of a counterpart to the Google project, though less well known, it aims to digitize and make available university resources on a given topic.[7]
    • Women Working, 1800-1930.[8]
    • Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930.[9]
    • Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemic.[10]
  • HUL's preservation staff, facilities, and program.[11]
    • "The possibility of a large-scale digitization of Harvard’s library books does not in any way diminish the University’s commitment to the collection and preservation of books as physical objects. The digital copy will not be a substitute for the books themselves. We will continue actively to acquire materials in all formats and we will continue to conserve them. In fact, as part of the pilot we are developing criteria for identifying books that are too fragile for digitizing and for selecting them out of the project."—Sidney Verba.[5]

Harvard-Google digitization partnership[edit]

Verba was ultimately responsible for Harvard's participation in the Google Books Library Project,[12] which involves a series of agreements between Google and major international libraries through which a collection of its public domain books will be scanned in their entirety and made available for free to the public online.[13] Verba's role encompassed developing digitization protocols, addressing logistical and operations issues, and administering the project. The more difficult part of his job required moderating the institutional debate about anticipated consequences inherent in conventional content-vs.-collection strategies; and sometimes he took on the role of public spokesman.[14]

Sidney Verba Endowment Fund[edit]

Friends and colleagues of Sidney Verba have established a $2.5 million endowment fund in his honor. The Fund benefits the Harvard University Library, which provides University-wide services, including digital acquisitions and collections, information technology, high-density storage, and preservation. Under the terms creating the fund, Verba himself was given the freedom to designate the purpose of the new endowment.[15]

Political scientist[edit]

However significant his work with Harvard's libraries, part of Verba's achievement has been that he somehow managed it all while remaining engaged as a political scientist. Most scholars put their own research on hold when they assume a time-consuming administrative role in the University—not so Sidney Verba, who believed that his faculty position was "supposed to be a real job." During his years as HUL director, he maintained a halftime teaching load while also pursuing independent research projects.[1]

The central focus of Verba's work as a political scientist can be summed up in one word -- "participation." Expanding the subject somewhat, that topic might be elaborated to "the issues of political participation by different groups." The great framing question of his work has been, "Whose voice is heard by the government?" Verba himself argues that issues having to do political participation have become central in America's political discourse today;[1] but he attributes his initial interest in the subject to the prescient encouragement of his mentor, Professor Gabriel Almond at Princeton University.[1] Verba earned his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1959;[16] and in 1963, he was named as a co-author with Almond in The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations.

In retirement, he continues to explore his longtime interest in "the citizen voice" with a new study of interest groups in the United States, asking whom they represent—ethnic groups, women, trade associations, professions. His research goal is to produce "a kind of statistical model of what the interest groups in the U.S. look like."[1]


Selected works[edit]

Verba's published writings encompass 83 works in 201 publications in 8 languages and 16,633 library holdings.[21]


  1. ^ a b c d e f Walker, Ruth. "Sidney Verba to retire; Appointed in 1984, Verba changed the face of the University Library," Harvard Gazette. September 21, 2006.
  2. ^ "Harvard announces coordinated academic calendar." Harvard Gazette. January 15, 2008.
  3. ^ Bok, Derek. "Letter to the Harvard community about Sidney Verba's retirement (2006).
  4. ^ "The Harvard Depository Mission," HUL/HD web.
  5. ^ a b c John Palfrey blog, Harvard Law School, Berkman Center for Law & Society.
  6. ^ "Harvard University's Library Digital Initiative (LDI)," HUL/LDI web.
  7. ^ "Harvard's Open Collections Program (OCP)," HUL/OCP web.
  8. ^ Women Working, 1800-1930, HUL/OPC web.
  9. ^ Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930, HUL/OPC web.
  10. ^ Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemic, HUL/OPC web.
  11. ^ "Weissman Preservation Center (WPC)," HUL/WPC web.
  12. ^ Kamarck, Elaine. "An endless shelf for library books," Boston Globe. March 17, 2006.
  13. ^ Harvard + Google digitization project partnership
  14. ^ Verba, Sidney. "Harvard-Google Project: "Libraries, Books, Equality—and Google," "HUL web.
  15. ^ "Library Visiting Committee Announces $2.5 Million Endowment Fund to Honor Sidney Verba; the new Sidney Verba Library Fund will benefit programs of the Harvard University Library," HUL news archive (2007).
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Verba, GSAS faculty bio, Harvard/GSAS web.
  17. ^ "Johan Skytte Prize Winners". The Skytte Foundation.
  18. ^ List of All Gladys M. Kammerer Award Recipients (PDF). American Political Science Association (APSA). 1972.
  19. ^ "List of All James Madison Award Recipients" (PDF). American Political Science Association (APSA). 1993.
  20. ^ List of Fellows, Verba. John Simon Gugenheim Memorial Foundation web.
  21. ^ WorldCat Identities: Verba, Sidney
  22. ^ America on the Brink of Oligarchy August 24, 2012 The New Republic

See also[edit]

External links[edit]