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The Mellon Foundation's $2.1 Million Gift to the Harvard Library Establishes University-Wide Photo Conservation Program

With a $2.1 million gift from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Harvard University Library (HUL) will establish a comprehensive, University-wide preservation program for Harvard's holdings of more than 7.5 million photographs. The Mellon Foundation is providing a $1.25 million matching grant to endow the position of senior photograph conservator in HUL's Weissman Preservation Center as well as $850,000 to help launch the new program during its first six years.

Commenting on the Mellon Foundation gift, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers stated, "Harvard's library holdings are among the University's core assets—assets that benefit our own faculty and students as well as scholars around the world. The University's photographic holdings are of tremendous value, providing unparalleled documentation of conditions worldwide, often of a world that is no longer available to us. With new support from the Mellon Foundation, the Harvard libraries will be dynamic stewards of these holdings for the benefit of the world community, now and in the generations to come."

Sidney Verba, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library, described the Mellon gift to Harvard as an unparalleled opportunity. "Because of the Mellon Foundation's vision and generosity, Harvard can create a photograph preservation program that is unique among American universities and that leverages new sources of support. The program will ensure that Harvard's monumental collections of photographs can be made available for widespread use today, and are preserved for future generations." Since 1997, the Mellon Foundation has awarded over $10 million in support of photograph conservation nationally.

Harvard has collected photographs for more than 160 years. Holdings in the libraries, archives, museums, and teaching hospitals span the history of the medium in all its facets, from daguerreotypes to digital images, and document an encyclopedic range of subjects, from art history to zoology. In 2003, with prior support from the Mellon Foundation, Harvard's Weissman Center completed an assessment of the nature and condition of the University's collections.

Jan Merrill-Oldham, the Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian in the University Library and the College Library, directs HUL's Weissman Center. "The camera was used at Harvard almost from the time of its invention to advance science and to document the natural, built, and social environment. For decades, Harvard's photographs have astounded the dedicated scholars who discover and study them," she said. "While historical images often stand alone as records of the past, photographs in the University's repositories are often accompanied by related journals, letters, diaries, and other archival materials that imbue the images with context and meaning. Our new technical and management capabilities will enable us to protect and treat our extraordinary holdings and to make them accessible to a broader audience than ever before."

An online "Directory to Photographs at Harvard," which is located at, provides a concise overview of the University's holdings and the 47 repositories in which they are located.

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 earmarked for digitizing or filming, the center creates high-quality cataloging records and related metadata to ensure that digitized texts can be discovered and used over the very long term. The center provides direct services, training, customized consultations, and other services for preservation and digitization projects across the University.

The Harvard University Library, founded in 1638, is the largest academic library system in the world. Harvard's rich and extensive collections serve as invaluable tools for teaching and research. These collections include books, journals, primary source materials, and audiovisual and digital resources that span a vast range of subjects, languages, and time periods. Access to most of these materials is integrated: print and digital resources on specific topics can often be located with a single search.

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Last modified on Friday, September 17, 2004.