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$640,996 Grant to HUL's Weissman Center Preserves Access to the History of Science
NEH Announces New Support for Harvard University Library Preservation Programs

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has announced a grant of $640,996 to the Harvard University Library (HUL) for a multi-year project to preserve and enhance access to thousands of rare and embrittled books on the history of science. The HUL project is one of 42 efforts in 18 states that will receive a cumulative $9.9 million in NEH support. Through these projects humanities collections are preserved, public access is increased, and research tools and reference works are created in the humanities. According to NEH Chairman Bruce Cole, "Preserving significant cultural resources . . .benefits us all, ensuring that this and future generations have access to the cultural legacy of our nation and our world."

The new Harvard program, entitled "Scientific Discovery and Its Human Context: Preserving the Historical Record," builds on the University's prior accomplishments with NEH support. Between 1990 and 2004, Harvard has produced preservation-quality microfilm for more than 99,000 rare and endangered volumes from the University's libraries.

The new program will be implemented by HUL's Weissman Preservation Center (WPC), where, according to Jan Merrill-Oldham, Harvard's Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian, preserving access to Harvard's vast historical record of scientific inquiry is among the center's highest priorities. "Between 1820 and 1950," Merrill-Oldham states, "the post-Enlightenment Western world generated a massive output of scientific literature. These publications reveal far more than the new theories and facts that they set out to report. In addition to the history of science, these sources offer critical insights into a range of historical and humanistic inquiry."

In July, members of the Weissman Center staff will initiate the selection, preparation, and cataloging involved in preserving 6,450 key volumes in four subject areas: history of medicine, scientific biography, history of astronomy, and history of forestry.

The volumes are drawn from the University's holdings in the Arnold Arboretum Horticultural Library and the John G. Wolbach Library of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, both of which are affiliated with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS); the Godfrey Lowell Cabot Science Library and the Harry Elkins Widener Library (in the Harvard College Library); and the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine, which serves the faculties of dentistry, medicine, and public health.

Through the preservation microfilming process, the Weissman staff will create non-circulating master archival copies of deteriorating materials, as well as "use" copies for each of the 6,450 books to be preserved through the program. Some films will be scanned for Internet delivery. HUL catalogers will create high-quality bibliographic records in HOLLIS, Harvard's online catalog, to ensure that readers discover the preserved materials.

Two factors make the Harvard program particularly pressing. Produced on highly acidic wood-pulp paper, many of the books are brittle and too fragile for day-to-day use. But, according to Merrill-Oldham, physical decay is only part of the problem. "Many institutions systematically discarded scientific and technical works that were seen as out of date," Merrill-Oldham states. "Harvard has retained its historical collections in the sciences, and they continue to support vital research. Through improved cataloging, microfilming, and, in some cases, digitizing, we can share an ever larger percentage of our holdings in the sciences worldwide."

According to Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library, the new NEH program is a significant endorsement of Harvard's preservation programs. "Harvard is fortunate," Verba states, "to have highly skilled conservators, who are uniquely qualified to preserve Harvard's greatest treasures in their original forms. But to meet the global demand for access to these materials, the intellectual content must also be distributed as widely as possible. Through this important program, scholars across the University and around the world will have access to fundamental materials on the history of science, which are preserved at Harvard."

The Weissman Preservation Center was named in March 2000 in honor of Paul M. Weissman '52 and Harriet L. Weissman. The center operates on a collaborative model, in which preservation staff members supported by the University Library and various faculties across the University work together in a shared facility, leveraging their special skills and knowledge to great mutual advantage. Through its special collections conservation laboratory, the center is charged with conserving the University's most rare and valuable holdings. For materials too fragile to remain in use, the center creates high-quality reproductions, ensuring long-term access to the intellectual content of those rare texts. For preservation and digitization projects across the University, the center provides direct services, training, customized consultations, and preservation and imaging reference services.

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Last modified on Tuesday, July 20, 2004.