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veritasHarvard University Library Notes, For Harvard Library Staff, Number 1325 May 2005
Brenda Bernier

Brenda Bernier

Harvard University Library Notes / May 2006 / No. 1331

Interview: Brenda Bernier

Brenda Bernier, senior photograph conservator in the Harvard University Library's Weissman Preservation Center, came to Harvard from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). At NARA, Bernier was responsible for assessing the nature and condition of the agency's vast photograph collections, performing conservation treatments, developing plans and guidelines, preparing storage specifications, conducting original research related to the deterioration and treatment of photographic materials, monitoring the work of conservation interns and junior conservators, and serving on NARA's Emergency Response Team. Bernier is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University and earned an MS in conservation of photographic materials from the Winterthur-University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation. She was interviewed for Library Notes on April 28. With Bernier's arrival at Harvard on October 1 and with vital program support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, HUL officially launched a new, University-wide photograph preservation program.

LN
Yours is a relatively new field. What do we need to know to understand your work?

BB
Photograph conservation has been gaining speed since the '70s. It certainly didn't exist before then. It was very slow to develop, and it didn't really professionalize until the mid-'80s.

The challenge is the photographs themselves—their historic nature and the materials they're made with. They're often not flat. They tend to be made on paper, glass, metal, or plastic. The images can be made with silver, gold, or even potato starch grains. It runs the gamut. The challenge is finding a way to preserve all of those materials.

LN
What are the special challenges of the Harvard libraries?

BB
There are something like 7.5 million photographs at Harvard, and the preservation of them has been varied. It's been a challenge for librarians, particularly if the photographs are not their primary charge. They've tried very hard in the past to piece together preservation activities in terms of grants and digitization projects. But now, with our new five-year program, we can take a look at needs across the University and address them at a more comprehensive level.

LN
What's been your experience so far?

BB
The predictable part is the nature of the problems, the sort of universal photograph preservation problems of housing, environmental control, and intellectual control of the collections—which is intimately tied with preservation activities—as well as single-item treatment and deterioration in particular types and classes of material. These are situations that you see at institutions throughout the world. This is what we've come to expect, and we're here to try to help.

The surprising part for me is the number of librarians, archivists, and collection managers who have a really high level of interest in their photos and an enthusiasm for the preservation project.

LN
What are some of your most important steps so far?

BB
I've been putting systems into place—both physical systems and people.

We've designed a database to help us track all the preservation needs at the photograph repositories. This is important because I don't want a bit of information about a particular re-housing project, for example, to come in and get lost in the stream of activity—even though we may not get to it for two years. We're also setting up an e-mail discussion list among the photo curators so that they can communicate with each other about exhibitions, about preservation concerns.

The most important thing has been staffing. The Mellon Foundation has funded a five-year position for a photo conservator, and we hope to hire someone this summer. HCL and HUL have jointly funded two technicians, which will tremendously help with housing projects. And Harvard College Library has funded a photo cataloger for five years. Robert Burton came on in early March. He has a wealth of experience in cataloging visual materials from the collection level down to the item level. He has a very good understanding of the preservation concerns with photographs and a passion for photographs.

LN
Is photograph cataloging as new as your field overall?

BB
It's probably even newer, and it's a very small field.

The surprising part for me is the number of librarians, archivists, and collection managers who have a really high level of interest in their photos and an enthusiasm for the preservation project.

LN
What are the skills required of a photograph cataloger?

BB
To visually analyze an image for the relevant keywords, to find relevant ways to describe what's going on in a photograph that will be useful to researchers. The cataloger will also pull from secondary sources as much as possible. The trouble with photographs is that they're often not captioned, and the information on individual photographs can be a little sparse. It requires a lot of thought and concentration and skill to be able to arrange them and catalog and describe them. You have to take in all the clues you can.

LN
What's your vision for the program over time?

BB
We would like to take a pyramid approach. For example, at the top our pyramid, we have single-item treatment, which is important for, say, old panoramas, photographs that are torn, photographs that need stabilization. But this is a very time-intensive component, and so we can't serve a lot of collections at one time with that type of treatment.

The next phase is housing. We can address a lot more photographs with improved housing for whole collections. And then we can improve access through good cataloging. Cataloging is integral to preservation.

And then, education and outreach is the broadest preservation task we can offer in terms of workshops, information on our web site, and onsite consultations—so far, we've performed probably 38 onsite consultations at over 16 repositories.

LN
What collections will you work on initially?

BB
We have some big projects already on the table. One is to assist with the preservation needs of the Fine Arts Library in preparation for their move in 2008, as their building is being renovated. That will be a very large project involving a lot of assistance on behalf of our photo cataloger and on behalf of the conservator in terms of treatment and identifying particular packing needs.

We are working with Harvard University Archives on the preparation of approximately 5,000 photographs for digital imaging, so that those images can be available for Harvard's 375th anniversary. So they're really thinking ahead.

Small projects have come through the lab already because curators at these libraries said they had them ready to go and they worked well with our available resources at the moment. These include materials from the Harvard-Yenching Library, the Wolbach Library, and the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature.

LN
If half a dozen repositories came to you with projects of equal merit, how would you sift them out?

BB
We would have to weigh other factors. Are there any pressing time concerns for any of them? Are there pressing research needs to be met? How ready is the library to proceed? Every project requires some degree of preparation on the part of the librarian.

LN
What are the costs involved in working with your program?

BB
Since my position and the conservator's position are Mellon-funded for five years, our mandate is University-wide. So, as far as treatment, we can offer, within reason of course, services to any of the libraries, archives, museums, or research institutes.

Most lab supplies for treatment will be absorbed by the program. However, if there are special rehousing projects, for example, some financial responsibility would come from the library. But with the technicians funded by HCL and HUL, we have a lot of flexibility in providing service.

Cataloging is slightly different. Robert's mandate is to serve the College, but he can provide consultation and training for libraries outside of HCL.

LN
It's very encouraging. Are you actively seeking proposals and looking for projects?

BB
Yes. The overall object is to care for all of Harvard's photographs. In particular, I would ask that libraries with photographs, who were not part of the Mellon survey, who have not used our services—and perhaps aren't even aware of our program—to contact us. We'd love to see your photographs, and see if there's a way we can help.

LN
Thank you.

 

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