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Interview: Jan Merrill-Oldham

Jan Merrill-Oldham is Harvard's Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian, serving in both the University Library and the College Library. In her dual role, she directs HUL's Weissman Preservation Center, heads the College Library's extensive Preservation and Imaging Department, and serves as the chief preservation officer for the University's libraries. She was interviewed for Library Notes on September 3.

LN
Tell us what steps led to the award of a Mellon grant to preserve Harvard's photographs.

JMO
The development of a preservation program for photograph collections has been on Harvard's agenda for many years. During the past two decades, the Harvard Depository, Harvard University Library's Weissman Preservation Center, and Harvard College Library's Digital Imaging Group were established; and environmental conditions have been upgraded in buildings across the University. Complementing these new circumstances are the implementation of VIA (Harvard's online cataloging system for visual resources), as well as a sophisticated electronic image delivery system and the Digital Repository Service. Combined, these achievements greatly strengthen the infrastructure needed to care for visual resources in the University's libraries, archives, museums, and teaching hospitals. In 2002, the Weissman was awarded a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to conduct a yearlong study of the condition of our photograph collections, assessment being a critical first step in preservation program planning.

LN
How did you carry out the initial survey?

JMO
Paul Messier, a well-known photograph conservator and founder of Boston Art Conservation, and Melissa Banta, the Weissman Center's program officer for visual collections, headed up the study. Thea Burns, our Helen H. Glaser Conservator (for paper), and program officer Jane Hedberg accompanied Paul and Melissa on visits to collections whenever they could.

LN
What's the significance of the Mellon Foundation's initial planning grant?

JMO
We have learned a great deal about the scope of the photograph collections and their preservation needs. Data collected in detailed questionnaires filled out by curators, and information gathered from notes taken during site visits to each repository, were entered into a database. This process enabled us to analyze the state of photograph preservation within each repository as objectively as possible, given the information that we have gathered to date. One of the most satisfying aspects of the project was the opportunity that it created for curators to ask questions and voice concerns about their holdings. Study findings showed clearly the need for a University-wide preservation initiative, and inspired us to propose a large-scale project that would jump-start a long-term program.

LN
One of the products of the planning grant is the new online Directory to Photographs at Harvard (see http://preserve.harvard.edu/photographs/directory.html).

JMO
Yes. The University's first photograph directory was the result of a collaborative effort undertaken by the Harvard Photo Curators Group in 1984, exactly 20 years ago. We are pleased to have been able to update that publication as part of the Mellon survey and to convert it to electronic form for online delivery. The new edition offers curators, reference librarians, students, and scholars ready access to descriptions of all known photograph collections at Harvard, and links to related resources. As we learn more about our holdings over time, the directory can be updated easily to reflect new discoveries and acquisitions.

LN
How extensive are Harvard's photograph holdings?

JMO
We have identified 47 photograph-holding repositories at Harvard, but developing a precise inventory is not a simple matter. Images can be found on shelves and in drawers; interfiled among archives and manuscript materials; and in books, scrapbooks, and diaries. They are ubiquitous and are being discovered all the time. Curators have given us their best estimates of item counts, which total about 7.5 million items. That number represents a lot of needed cataloging, cleaning, conserving, and rehousing.

LN
Are these holdings well documented?

JMO
Documentation varies significantly. We know, for example, from detailed records and log books in the Harvard College Observatory, that a daguerreotype of the moon taken in 1852 was the result of a series of trials conducted by the Observatory's director, William Cranch Bond, in collaboration with Boston photographer John Adams Whipple. On the other hand, there are countless images, some of them potentially very important, for which there is no apparent documentation. Repositories often hold archival material that has not yet been linked to related photographs, however, and information about a given image may yet turn up.

A number of significant cataloging initiatives have been undertaken in repositories throughout Harvard. These are catalysts for improved collections care. One of the things the Mellon survey confirmed for us is that collection managers are much more likely to house photographs in specialized storage facilities if images are well cataloged and can be retrieved readily. Cold, clean, dark, dry conditions can extend the life of some photographs many times over. As part of our new program, we will seek resources that enable us to step up the cataloging and digitizing of unprocessed collections, beginning first with materials that have high artifactual value and that are particularly vulnerable to deterioration.

LN
What did the Mellon survey reveal to be the greatest areas of concern?

JMO
Well, there is a widespread need for the most basic of conservation interventions: the rehousing of hundreds of thousands of images. In some cases, unique materials that have significant research value are stored in enclosures that, instead of protecting their contents, actually accelerate their deterioration. Photographs and photographic negatives developed on glass, for example, are vulnerable to abrasion and breaking, chemical degradation, and image loss. They need the protection afforded by archival wrappers and boxes.

Second, the Mellon survey showed that many collections are housed in areas where appropriate temperature and relative humidity cannot be maintained. Nitrate negatives stored in warm, humid conditions, for example, will decay rapidly. So again, long-term conservation, cataloging, and imaging programs will make it possible to move a higher percentage of our holdings into protective cool and cold storage.

Third, badly damaged and actively deteriorating images throughout the collections require immediate conservation treatment.

And fourth, we see the need for a specialized education and training program for curators and conservation staff that includes seminars, workshops, and web-based resources.

LN
What are the first steps you'll take to establish the preservation program?

JMO
The database that was created during the Mellon condition survey will be instrumental in helping us set priorities. Our relationships with administrators and curators around the University are in excellent working order, and input will be sought in formal and informal settings. This fall, we will recruit a senior photograph conservator and careful, detailed planning will begin in earnest. In the spring we'll begin our search for an assistant conservator, a cataloger of photographs, and additional staff. We will move into a new building next summer, and will have the space and equipment required to carry out our mission at the highest levels of practice.

LN
How will you identify the new conservator of photographs?

JMO
The field of photograph conservation is just coming into its own, and the preservation landscape is not yet populated by senior professionals in great numbers. We will advertise in appropriate venues, but this is a case where recommendations from associates will be sought in every available quarter.

LN
How do you envision the conservator's first year at Harvard?

JMO
Mm. Everyone's first year at Harvard plays out to common themes. Our conservator will have to become familiar very quickly with the organization—its people, places, and collections; the workings of the Weissman and complementary conservation and imaging programs in the Harvard College Library's Preservation and Imaging department; and the well-established conservation programs in the Fogg, Peabody, and other Harvard museums. Collaborative structures will have to be built through which formal opportunities to plan and work together can be organized. Near-term priorities must be agreed upon—a job that is possible despite our size, age, and complexity, because the managers of Harvard's repositories are skilled collaborators.

LN
What challenges and opportunities are posed by the new Mellon grant?

JMO
Harvard's collections are large, diverse, and dispersed. A six-year grant project will be successful if it starts us on a long journey. Our goal will be to manage our new venture so successfully that the program draws additional resources and can persist for the very long term. We need to accomplish several things at once, in good balance.

This we will do.

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Last modified on Friday, September 17, 2004.