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Administration & Programs

Weissman Preservation Center


The Weissman Preservation Center (WPC), named in honor of Paul M. Weissman '52 and Harriet L. Weissman, operates on a collaborative model in which librarians and conservators supported by the Harvard University Library (HUL), the Harvard College Library (HCL), and other Harvard libraries and archives work in a shared facility. Together they leverage their skills, knowledge, and resources to provide high-quality services in three important program areas: care and conservation of the Library's diverse and distinguished special collections; participation in the development of infrastructure critical to the creation and preservation of information in digital form; and the creation of metadata that ensures the discovery of historical collections. It is the mission of WPC to support teaching and learning at Harvard and beyond by helping to ensure that the University's library resources survive for the very long term.

On May 5, 2006, the Weissman Center took up residence in a new, purpose-built facility at 90 Mt. Auburn Street, transforming the potential of the Center and affecting all aspects of its programs. Every staff member was involved in the intensive planning that led up to the move. Selection of materials for conservation treatment ceased in mid-spring, as many in-process items were completed as possible, and all were returned to their owning libraries in the interests of safety and security. WPC staff organized tools, supplies, equipment, and the Center's preservation resource library, and wrapped and packed delicate instruments and sensitive office files. Not unexpectedly, deconstructing the conservation laboratory proved to be the most complex part of the process; happily, the move progressed without incident. Managing the installation and startup operation of complicated lab equipment (much of it new) on the fourth (uppermost) floor of 90 Mt. Auburn took the better part of the summer, as did the arrangement of files and materials in the resource library. WPC now has sufficient space to operate, in a well-constructed building, with a custom-built laboratory worthy of the Harvard collections that it serves.

Conservation of Special Collections

The WPC conservation laboratory provides advanced analysis and treatment services for a wide range of special collections materials from across the University. Conservators and curators work together to identify materials at risk because of damage and deterioration. Poor condition; immediate faculty and student interests; and the intention to digitize, exhibit, or loan materials are primary drivers of priorities. In addition to the assessment and treatment of individual items, conservators are increasingly asked to evaluate, clean, and stabilize whole collections before they are reproduced.

Among the many collections assessed were

  • 500 18th- and 19th-century English execution broadsides from the Harvard Law School Library;
  • the papers of John Winthrop (1714–1779), Harvard's second Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, from the Harvard University Archives; and
  • approximately 65,000 photographs and 16,000 Korean rare books from the Harvard-Yenching Library.

Among the 4,552 items treated were

  • papyrus fragments written in Greek, largely from 4th-century Egypt, as well as exquisitely illustrated medieval manuscripts requiring both consolidation of pigments and repair of leaves and bindings, from HCL's Houghton Library;
  • 18th-century lithographic theatrical posters and 18th- and 19th-century English caricatures from the Harvard Theatre Collection in Houghton Library;
  • 38 English broadsides from the 18th and 19th centuries announcing public executions of criminals from the Harvard Law School Library;
  • 96 items from the holdings of Harvard Business School's Baker Library and displayed in an exhibition about the "South Sea Bubble," a business venture launched in 1711 that in 1720 resulted in catastrophic financial losses and prosecutions;
  • an original 19th-century watercolor poster from the Hasty Pudding Club that shows tiny students devouring a giant strawberry;
  • for the Open Collections Program's project Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930, manuscripts and scrapbooks documenting immigrant activities and the activities of Boston's North Bennet Street School;
  • 76 photographs taken from Skylab—the first space station launched into orbit by the United States—drawn from the holdings of the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and
  • a daguerreotype showing Theodore Lyman, Alexander Agassiz, and Jacques Burkhardt (principals on Harvard's Thayer Expedition to Brazil, 1865-1866), held at the Ernst Mayr Library.

Newly Established Photograph Preservation Program

Brenda Bernier joined the WPC staff as Harvard's first senior photograph conservator in October 2005, charged with the initial responsibility of managing a multi-year grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to preserve the University's collections of approximately 7.5 million photographs. Bernier began her work by familiarizing herself with the Harvard libraries, archives, and museums that hold significant photograph collections; identifying appropriate planning strategies; and determining staffing needs.

Digital Initiatives

WPC promotes the development of sustainable information content in digital form by advising the Harvard community regarding strategies for reformatting library collections, and by participating in the oversight of the HUL Digital Repository Service (DRS). WPC advocates the use of specifications and workflows that balance quality, usability, and cost. Digital initiatives in collaboration with the HUL Office for Information Systems included

  • co-developing, for the Harvard-Google Project, specifications for file formats and procedures for quality control;
  • developing preservation policies for DRS; and
  • developing functional requirements for software to automate the production of accurate "deposit packages" for content submitted to DRS.

Additional initiatives included

  • advising the records management staff in the University Archives on their new Guidelines for Imaging University Records;
  • responding to requests for advice on digitizing pictorial and textual collections;
  • advising on the first Harvard library project to outsource keyboarding services to produce highly accurate text for searching and display; and
  • overseeing the development of a customized database application for comprehensive preservation assessment, designed to help special collections conservators in WPC prioritize preservation needs throughout the libraries and archives.

Preservation Cataloging and Metadata Production

Staff completed the second and final year of a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored preservation project in June 2006, cataloging deteriorated collections in the history of science in preparation for their reproduction. Five Harvard repositories (the Wolbach Library of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Cabot Science Library, Widener Library, the Countway Library of Medicine, and the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library in Jamaica Plain) contributed materials about astronomy, the history of medicine, scientific biography, and the history of forestry.

Over the course of two years, the project microfilmed 3,510 titles (4,165 volumes), many of them in extremely poor condition, producing 833,056 frames of microfilm. Work in Countway Library included not only general research collections but also 330 pamphlet titles from special collections, which required that new contacts and routines be established.

Weissman staff members also cataloged books, photographs, and manuscript materials and created metadata for Women Working, 1800–1930, the first digital project undertaken by the Open Collections Program. New workflows, staffing models, and cataloging standards were developed to accommodate the transition from microfilming to digitization, and digital resources created by the Cornell University Library were cataloged to include in the collection.

Education and Outreach

The Weissman Preservation Center continues to be Harvard's go-to place for preservation information and support. Through general educational programs, targeted training sessions, brown-bag lunches, educational tools, reference services, and documentation, WPC educates staff members and makes preservation expertise available to all Harvard libraries.

During FY 2006, WPC offered five programs and customized training sessions:

  • "How to Safely Exhibit Books, Paper, and Photographs" by Pamela Spitzmueller, James W. Needham Chief Conservator for Special Collections, Thea Burns, Helen H. Glaser Conservator, and Brenda Bernier, senior photograph conservator;
  • "Hurricanes: Is Your Library Ready for the 2006 Season?" by Jane Hedberg, preservation program officer, and Ethel Hellman, collections conservator for HCL's Widener Library;
  • "Rübel Rubbings" by Boyue Yao, visiting scholar from Beijing University Library, and Thea Burns, Helen H. Glaser Conservator;
  • tutorials on cleaning brittle books by Jane Hedberg, preservation program officer; and
  • a tour of Acme Bookbinding Company in Charlestown, Massachusetts.

Staff members from WPC, HCL Preservation and Imaging, and other parts of the University shared their expertise during six brown-bag lunches:

  • "Image Searching in VIA" by Maggie Hale, HCL's librarian for collections digitization;
  • "Emergency Preparedness in the Home" by Jane Hedberg, preservation program officer;
  • "Book Conservation and the Book Arts" by Pamela Spitzmueller, James W. Needham Chief Conservator for Special Collections;
  • "Murder at Harvard" by Melissa Banta, curatorial associate;
  • "Quixotic Typography" by David Whitesell, rare book cataloger in HCL's Houghton Library; and
  • "Theatrical Printing" by Fredric Wilson, curator of HCL's Harvard Theatre Collection.

At the request of the HCL Social Sciences Program, WPC developed an online slide show to facilitate training in basic care and handling of library materials for new staff members and student workers. Turnover, particularly among student workers, means that training must be repeated several times during the year. The new online tool frees the supervisor from conducting repeated sessions and ensures that everyone receives the same information.

WPC offers a preservation reference service both to Harvard libraries and to the wider community by telephone, e-mail, and web site. During FY 2006, the Center answered 150 questions, ranging from an inquiry about the deterioration of acetate microfilm to how to identify insects infesting a book collection.

Colleagues from other universities are frequently interested in WPC activities, and staff conducted eight tours for varying numbers of guests during the year.

Preservation Web Site Developments

The preservation web site,, is an efficient way for WPC to communicate with the many libraries that make up HUL. The current version, in place since 2000, is ready for an update, and during FY 2006 staff proposed a complete restructure that will be implemented in FY 2007. This new framework should make it easier to discover information about preservation topics and make searching the site more efficient.

Emergency Preparedness and Response

The Library Collections Emergency Team (LCET) continues to provide advice and salvage expertise whenever library collections are damaged. Members of the team monitor a hotline and work with the University Operations Center to respond to collections emergencies. During FY 2006, the LCET was activated eight times to assist with collections rescue.

Four Harvard repositories requested assistance with emergency planning this year. Each was at a different stage in the process, so WPC provided advice about how to begin planning, revive an outdated plan, determine the best salvage methods for high-density storage, and improve an almost finished plan.

The University implemented a new emergency response structure in FY 2006, requiring HUL to create a Local Emergency Management Team (LEMT). Several WPC staff members were selected to serve on the HUL team and participated in a University-wide avian flu exercise.

Collaboration with Commercial Publishers

Over the course of the year, 382 Harvard-owned journals were identified and copied for Periodicals Index Online (PIO) indexing under the direction of WPC staff. These titles represent full runs (from start year through 1995) and updates to periodicals already indexed by publisher Chadwyck-Healey. There are now over 5,000 journals covered by the index, providing access to nearly 17 million article citations going back to 1665. Direct links to full-text databases allow users to view online over 3.2 million indexed articles.