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Administration and Programs

Weissman Preservation Center

Weissman Preservation Center


Weissman Preservation Center

The Weissman Preservation Center specializes in the preservation of rare and unique books, manuscripts, maps, drawings, music scores, photographs, and other objects held in repositories across the Harvard University Library. The Center was named in honor of Paul M. Weissman '52 and Harriet L. Weissman for their visionary support of library preservation at Harvard.

Comprehensive Special Collections Preservation

The Center's special collections conservation laboratory provides centralized, professionally managed conservation services ranging from assessment and analysis of single objects and whole collections to full conservation treatments carried out at the highest level of practice. During FY 2010, the lab worked on thousands of items, nearly all of which are rare or unique.

Treatment in the lab is facilitated by specialized equipment and systems such as binocular microscopes for detailed examination or procedures and a spectrophotometer to objectively quantify and record the color of an object before and after treatment or exhibition. Conservators are using an XRF (X-ray fluorescence) element analyzer to provide crucial information used in dating artifacts, in understanding an artist's or author's use of materials, and in developing treatment options. This year, the technology allowed conservators to identify hand coloring on a rare William Blake volume as being original to Blake himself. Additionally, a photograph of William James was identified as being a rare Kallitype print—the first print of this type to be identified in Harvard's vast photographic holdings. Both the Blake and the Kallitype are from the collections of Houghton Library.

Written and visual documentation of treatments is a core activity in a conservation lab. At the end of FY 2010, the Center's conservation lab began to shift its documentation activities from analog film to digital media through the acquisition of a high-quality digital camera system. Because this shift enables conservators to capture large maps, photographs, and posters at a much greater resolution than before, treatment records are far more detailed than in the past. This year, the Center also began using specialized ultraviolet lights to examine certain types of coatings or deterioration on objects. In one stunning case, the lighting system even revealed previously erased text on a 16th-century almanac which contained erasable, coated parchment writing leaves and a metal stylus inserted into the cover.


Weissman Center conservators treated more than 2,000 rare books in 2009–2010. These included 584 works digitized for Harvard's new online collection, Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership and Reading History, and 572 rare books that are included in a joint digitization program of Harvard College Library and the National Library of China. A treatment highlight this year was a bound volume of favorite sheet music collected by Emily Dickinson and bearing her signature on the flyleaf. Dickinson had a great passion for music, a theme that is getting increased attention from scholars. Curator Leslie Morris has stated that this volume from Houghton Library is "one of the few physical witnesses to Dickinson and music."


Paper conservators assessed or treated more than 6,000 objects, ranging from oversized Chinese rubbings from the Harvard-Yenching Library and costume and set designs from the Harvard Theatre Collection to manuscripts of such authors as John Keats and the 20th-century Belgian author Marguerite Yourcenar. In collaboration with the Harvard University Archives, and with support from the Arcadia Fund, conservators completed treatment on 407 large-format drawings and calculations created by Harvard undergraduates between 1782 and 1839.

The team project with the University Archives also encompasses the cataloging, assessment, and treatment of 1,400 bound and unbound manuscripts including the extraordinary collections of papers of John Hancock and John and Hannah Winthrop. The Hancock collection illustrates his role as treasurer of Harvard College while simultaneously documenting his involvement in the political affairs of the colony. The Winthrop papers document the activities of John Winthrop, often referred to as America's first scientist, and include his lecture notes, over 50 annotated almanacs, and his and his wife Hannah's many diaries. The strategic pairing of improved archival description with stabilization of the fragile material is providing access to, and use of, these collections.


The Weissman Center's Photograph Preservation Program takes a very integrated approach to the preservation of Harvard's estimated 8 million photographs. For many projects, the team combines collection survey, rehousing or archival storage, conservation treatment, and cataloging for access, often all in conjunction with digitization efforts. During the course of the year, approximately 1,500 photographs were treated in the lab, an additional 17,000 items were assessed, and over 29,500 others were preserved through rehousing using archival materials. Through improved cataloging, the Center provided access to nearly 80 unique collections, representing over 50,000 photographs.

The Center helped preserve photographic materials ranging from early solar spectra, resembling simple bar codes on glass, from Wolbach Library to exquisite portraits of Clarence Kennedy by Ansel Adams, in the collection of the Fine Arts Library. The Countway Library of Medicine is home to a remarkable collection of glass plate negatives taken for 19th-century French physician and "father of neurology" Jean-Martin Charcot. While a small but famous subset of Charcot's images of patients and their conditions were known to historians of both medicine and photography, the 17,000 negatives at Harvard were a true hidden treasure, inaccessible to researchers for decades. Weissman Center staff rehoused each plate, as well as surveying the condition and checking important identifying inscriptions. The first researcher is flying into Boston this September to examine the collection and accompanying database.

Audiovisual Materials

The Weissman Center has developed a new management tool for systematically recording the nature and condition of the University's unique audio, video, and motion-picture collections. These materials, which tend to deteriorate very quickly and which often rely on obsolete equipment for access, form an increasingly important component of Harvard's library collections. Known as SAVE, for Support for Audiovisual Evaluation at Harvard University, the new survey tool, in use for the first time in 2009–2010, has recorded the condition of more than 3,000 items. Survey findings indicate that more than a third of these items are in urgent need of preservation reformatting due to a host of problems ranging from physical deterioration to format obsolescence.

Highlights from the survey in 2009–2010 are indicative of the range and depth of Harvard's AV materials and of their long-term value for research. Survey items included 938 audio and video recordings, from the "Learning from Performers" program of the Office for the Arts to audiovisual media from the papers of anthropologist Laurence Wylie (1909–1996), Harvard's first C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France, who is especially renowned for his studies of gesture and nonverbal communication.

Education and Outreach

The Center supports preservation activities in all Harvard libraries and the Harvard community by offering free educational programs, specialized training sessions, and consultations. In FY 2010, staff members shared their knowledge and expertise on a variety of preservation topics through 13 no-cost brown-bag lunches. An extensive two-day program on accessioning photograph collections was organized and taught by Weissman Center staff and well-received by the Harvard library community. The Center was also host to a remarkable week-long workshop on daguerreotype conservation. Funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and attended by an international selection of mid- and senior-level photograph conservators, the workshop brought in subject experts to establish a core understanding of current daguerreotype preservation research.

As part of its outreach mission, the Center responds to hundreds of preservation questions and requests for advice from individuals across the University and the general public. This year queries ranged from setting up an environmental monitoring program to dealing with a dead gecko found in an incoming collection box. Additionally, noting a need for accessible visual instructions, the Center created high-quality videos on the care and handling of Asian scrolls, which can be seen at The videos and accompanying written guidelines will be accessed by students and those who work with scrolls throughout Harvard, particularly the heavily used facsimile collections within the Fine Arts Library.

On March 18, 2010, friends and members of the Harvard community gathered with staff and Paul and Harriet Weissman in Lamont Library to mark the 10th anniversary of the Weissman Preservation Center. The celebration continued in June with an open house held at the Center for over 100 library staff.

Emergency Preparedness and Response

The Library Collections Emergency Team (LCET) provides advice and salvage expertise whenever library collections are threatened or damaged. Members of the team monitor a cell phone hotline and work with the University Operations Center to respond during emergencies. During FY 2010, particularly with a very wet spring, the LCET was activated nine times to assist with materials rescue.

Preservation and Access

The Center manages the Harvard libraries' significant contributions to ProQuest's Periodicals Index Online (PIO). PIO is a powerful resource to open up otherwise hidden journal content for scholars at Harvard and around the world. There are now indexes to 6,000 journals available through the PIO, which provides access to nearly 20 million article citations going back to 1665.

In December, the Center launched Daguerreotypes at Harvard, an online collection of more than 3,500 daguerreotypes at Harvard. Through the new digital collection, these rare and frequently requested holdings are gathered together for the first time through this single web interface. Housed in libraries, museums, and archives across the University, Harvard's daguerreotypes include some of the earliest photographs of the moon and other subjects, notable portraits of individuals like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and the work of pioneering daguerreotypists such as Southworth & Hawes and John Adams Whipple.