• Harvard University
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  • Library Notes
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  • October 2010
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  • No. 1356
Appreciations: Jan Merrill-Oldham Print

merrill-oldham.jan.jpgOn September 24, 2010, Jan Merrill-Oldham completed her near-legendary tenure as Harvard's Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian. She embarked on her dual position in 1995, directing the Weissman Preservation Center in the Harvard University Library and the Preservation and Imaging Services Department in the Harvard College Library.

Jan Merrill-Oldham is unquestionably the driving force in developing Harvard's renowned preservation programs. It is to her credit that Harvard's libraries benefit from a carefully coordinated relationship between collections conservation and special collections conservation; state-of-the-art conservation labs in Widener and the Weissman Center; a multifaceted special collections program for the conservation of books, paper, photographs, and film; a preservation review program; a comprehensive imaging services program; and a proven Library Collections Emergency Team. Her comprehensive approach to preservation yielded more than $11 million in support from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Jan Merrill-Oldham became interested in library and archives preservation in 1975. She began formal training in library and archives preservation theory and practice in 1979, when she was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities-sponsored fellowship at Yale University. She has been active in the field of preservation since then, writing and lecturing on a wide range of topics, and working in various capacities with organizations and associations that are actively engaged in preservation education, planning, and policy development. She has chaired and served on a wide range of preservation planning and advisory committees and task forces including for the American Library Association, the Association of Research Libraries, the Library of Congress, the Commission on Preservation and Access, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the National Information Standards Organization, and Heritage Preservation. She has authored and edited more than 40 publications. She earned ALA's Esther Piercy Award in 1990, an award for distinguished service to the University of Connecticut in 1994, ALA's Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award in 1994, a certificate honoring 15 years of service as consultant to the Association of Research Libraries in 2002, and the ALCTS Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award in 2004.

Before coming to Harvard, Jan Merrill-Oldham established the University of Connecticut Libraries' preservation program. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Connecticut and a master's degree in library and information science, which she earned through a unique program that combined courses at the University of Rhode Island, the University of Connecticut, Yale University, and Southern Connecticut State University.

Following the announcement of Jan's departure, coworkers, colleagues, and friends contributed these appreciations.

Brenda Bernier

Acting Program Manager and Paul M. and Harriet L. Weissman Senior Photograph Conservator—Weissman Preservation Center

On a snowy night during Jan Merrill-Oldham's first year at Harvard, a large plow hit a fire hydrant on Plympton Street, causing the special collections conservation lab—then located in the lower floor of the former Hillel building—to fill with water. By all reports, Jan dealt with the situation in her typical fashion—with cool head and clear vision. Throughout the following 15 years, Jan's advocacy for preservation at Harvard has been steadfast. Her leadership guided numerous initiatives to benefit library collections, including the formation of the Library Collections Emergency Team. Jan's aspirations for HUL's Preservation Center began to be realized when the Weissman Preservation Center was named in 2000, and then again six years later when it moved into its current, well-appointed facility.

For the staff of the Weissman Preservation Center, Jan has been more than a manager. She has inspired us for years as a tireless advocate, a brilliant mentor, and a warm and caring friend. A few years ago, Jan and I were discussing some pressing, but now forgotten, administrative issue. While I had worked myself into knots worrying about the situation at hand, Jan calmly observed, "This is like a puzzle. It will be interesting to see how it gets resolved. And rest assured, it will get resolved." Her optimism was both refreshing and contagious. And it continues to motivate her staff every day.

Nancy Cline

Roy E. Larsen Librarian of Harvard College

Tutor, guide, mentor, colleague, consultant, author, expert, advocate, manager...it is hard to narrow the list of terms that describe my experience with Jan Merrill-Oldham at Harvard. She has been all these and more. However, our professional collaboration began well before either of us came to Harvard. Jan's commitment to preservation formed early and grew to have a broad impact on libraries across the country. In the late 1970s, she was an NEH Fellow in Preservation at Yale and then eventually headed the Preservation Department at the University of Connecticut Libraries. When I met her through the Association of Research Libraries, where she served for 15 years as a consultant to its Preservation of Research Libraries program, I was heading the Penn State Libraries, where preservation had not been a major commitment. Jan was quick to provide counsel to a new administrator, calling my attention to critical preservation needs in my own libraries and emphasizing the interdependency among all research libraries' collections. Years later, in the spring of 1996, when I was president of ARL, and a candidate at Harvard, I met the full force of her conviction: captive on a ferry from Vancouver to Victoria, Jan persuasively and persistently informed me of the magnitude of the preservation needs at Harvard, beginning with the environmental conditions of most libraries' stacks, making it clear there were high expectations for the successful candidate to address a substantial preservation agenda. Fortunately for Harvard’s recruitment efforts, Jan also spoke eloquently of the accomplishments of the preservation staff and of the remarkable treasures within the Libraries' care!

It is Jan's knowledgeable tenacity, her ability to develop programs and staff, and her broad international network of colleagues that have made such a difference for Harvard's preservation program. Whether the issue was brittle books, library binding, flaking pigments, digitization, photo storage, fragile media formats, or longevity of microfilm, Jan had knowledge of the topic. She also had the humility to know that others were constantly developing new techniques, adopting new practices, or integrating new tools. Jan is a constant learner, researching the options, communicating with others to incorporate the best ideas from the field, and sharing her expertise generously with others. And lest we focus too much on the high end, the care of Harvard's rarest treasures, I smile each day as I walk across campus, or even through downtown Boston, and am reminded of the simple measures by which one person can change an institution...for who hasn't seen those ubiquitous wet-weather bags, filled with books or other paraphernalia? These bags, and their persistent message, will ensure that more library materials will endure. They, along with the well-trained, highly responsive Library Collections Emergency Team that is on call 24/7, and the Weissman Preservation Center's web site that offers guidance on collections care, storage, cleaning, moving, and security, and all the staff and colleagues she has educated, are a credit to Jan's leadership at Harvard. She has undoubtedly strengthened Harvard's commitment to preservation. 

Bill Comstock

Head, Imaging Services—Harvard College Library

There are certain times of the year when I find myself touring group after group of visitors through Imaging Services. Usually, I begin with a broad description of how the Preservation Program is organized, and then I go over the staffing and organization of Imaging Services in detail. The practice of explicating my organization to others has helped me to better understand what we do—do really well. In telling our story over and over, I've also discovered what I like best about the Preservation Program: It tries to extend its reach to almost any operation that puts library materials into motion.

There isn't a piece of the Preservation Program that doesn't bear Jan's fingerprints, but for me, the thing that I brag about to visitors—and to myself—is how well and how thoughtfully preservation assessment and practices have been integrated into so many key library workflows.

Jan was everywhere. Colleagues from every corner of the Library collaborated with her because they knew how hard she would work and how polished and insightful her contributions would be. Or, she may have simply invited herself into your work, into your planning process, because she suspected that library collections were about to be put into motion and she didn't dare miss an opportunity to make sure that a collection was easier to find, harder to steal, and more sturdy at the end of whatever work process was being examined or envisioned.

Jan, look at all the people and pieces you put together for the Library. I'm a grateful component of the preservation machine that you assembled for the Harvard of today, and for the many Harvard users that will benefit from your efforts long into the future.

Robert Darnton

Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library

To say that Jan Merrill-Oldham is the heart and soul of Harvard's preservation programs is an understatement. She has energized preservation activities far beyond the Weissman Center, Collections Conservation in Widener, and HCL Imaging Services—all of which are the products of her remarkable leadership and dedication.

Preservationists everywhere defer to Jan's authority and recognize her as the incarnation of the Cause. In fact, I am amazed that we could keep her here. Why did the pope not snap her up and set her to work restoring the Sistine Chapel? He must have known infallibly that nothing could shake her commitment to Harvard.

Now, many flaky medieval manuscripts, soaked theater posters, hard-circulating books, and uncountable digitized items later, Jan has moved graciously into retirement. But she will remain in our collective memory: the great lady who infused our library preservation programs with the greatness of Harvard itself.

Rebecca Graham

Associate Librarian of Harvard College for Preservation, Digitization, and Administrative Services

My professional introduction to Jan was in her role as a faculty member in NEDCC's School for Scanning in Chicago in June 1999, which I attended as Digital Library Federation program officer. During that week, I had the good fortune to spend both formal and informal time with Jan and was immediately and thoroughly impressed with the depth of her knowledge, the generosity with which it was shared, and the thoughtfulness evident in her engagement. Now, having worked with Jan in the Harvard College Library since 2006, I have "learned at the feet of the master." Two things in particular have become abundantly clear to me during that time.

It is through Jan's vision, guidance, and unwavering belief in Harvard's leadership role that the University has accomplished the technological transitions and established the donor relationships that have enabled our preservation programs to expand and flourish.

And for me, as for many of Jan's colleagues, working with such a patient, generous, and inspiring colleague and friend has been a matter of immeasurable good fortune.

Heather Kaufman

Head, Conservation Services—Harvard College Library

Jan Merrill-Oldham: Visionary. Vibrant. Vocal. Venerated. Jan brought a unique combination of personal and professional qualities to her work. Her willingness to look at complex realities with a potent mix of strategy and optimism has made preservation at Harvard so much more than a roster of services—she created a strong and relevant program that is held up in the field as a national model. Jan built on the early successes of her predecessors here with a dynamic determination. We all remember the late-afternoon meetings that went through dinner, the e-mails she sent in the wee hours of the morning, all stemming from her tireless commitment to making this program, and all of us who were in it, the best possible. She stretched us to think about issues in new ways. Her work ethic, smarts, and radiant smile will be deeply missed.

Leslie Morris

Curator, Modern Books and Manuscripts—Houghton Library of the Harvard College Library

The partnership between conservator and curator is mutually supportive. Each brings expertise to the relationship. The conservator contributes knowledge of the science and technology involved in the crafting, study, and preservation of artifacts; and the range of treatments possible and their short- and long-term effects. The curator brings experience with past and anticipated use of the artifact: for information only; for close analysis, so that the original color of ink and paper, or the detail of the binding structure, must be documented and preserved; as an icon, with the complex balancing of factors that status entails. Sometimes there are no perfect treatments. It is important, then, for an atmosphere of mutual respect and trust to exist between the partners so that, together, the best treatment can be found.

In her time at Harvard, Jan Merrill-Oldham has worked tirelessly and effectively to create both formal structures to support that working partnership and, more importantly, to create an environment where meaningful dialogue can flourish. This is no small accomplishment, and it profoundly affects the well-being of the Harvard collections over the long term. Jan has built an effective program through managing perceptively and humanely, hiring wisely, and creating an atmosphere where true collaboration can flourish. Long may it continue!

Nancy Schrock

Thomas F. Peterson Conservator—MIT Libraries

The field of library preservation was in its infancy when Carolyn Morrow introduced me to Jan Merrill-Oldham in 1982. The three of us were caught up in the excitement of a new cause, and our careers took parallel tracks at Library of Congress, University of Connecticut, and my private practice. Eventually our paths would merge at Harvard, where Carolyn laid the foundation for preservation and Jan developed the comprehensive programs and beautiful labs that you see today. It has been my pleasure to work with them as consultant and then Chief Conservator of General Collections.

Through nearly 30 years, Jan has been a colleague and friend. Before Harvard, we co-authored a book chapter on collections conservation (editing with Jan is not for the faint-hearted), but it was Harvard College Library that gave us the chance to implement all we had talked about. Designing the Widener Conservation Laboratory was a career high point for me, as was the opportunity to build a fine staff. Jan and I had our own retreats at her beautiful home in Storrs, where we would brainstorm about the future for the department. I learned to leave my evenings open in January for late nights when we would write the complex HCL budget for conservation. Jan's enthusiasm was infectious—we were always looking toward the future, no matter how difficult the present challenges. Although we talked about retiring together, ultimately I left first for MIT and its special collections, knowing that the program we had created would continue, as would our friendship.

Helen Shenton

Deputy Director—Harvard University Library

Jan is a force of nature; a tornado of ideas swirling around any discussion.
Throughout our professional lives, we have intertwined on numerous occasions.Our past lives—mine at the British Library and the Victoria and Albert Museum, Jan's at the University of Connecticut and with every conceivable organization concerned with improving preservation practices—brought us together here in Cambridge, and in London, Washington, Princeton, and cyberspace.
At the BL, whenever we were putting together international roundtables on the most pressing preservation issues, we looked to sister national libraries around the world and to Harvard, because Harvard's well-balanced and skillful programs are among the best in the world. This is, of course, testament to Jan Merrill-Oldham's determination, commitment, doggedness, professionalism, and intellectual curiosity. I so appreciated Jan's engagement and free thinking on international roundtable issues such as the future direction of research and the consequences of Nicholson Baker's spotlight on newspapers and microform and the newly discovered scale of cellulose acetate legacy.
About a year ago, I was passing through Cambridge when in the thick of re-imagining the long-term strategy for the preservation of the British Library's circa 115 million physical items and the 300-plus terabytes of electronic material. We met for lunch and, over great cakes and conversation, Jan was so sparky, sparkly, and energized as she clearly wrestled with the issues.
Having now observed Jan's programs from the inside here at Harvard for the past six months, I'm even more impressed with the Harvard "set-up" and with the kinetic energy within the University's preservation programs. These stem from Jan's wise decisions and her direction about people and programs, and her overall philosophy of preservation. It is one of the paradoxes of preservation that at first glance it is about the past, but in fact, it is all about the future.

Jan has already contributed so much to the future.

Paul M. Weissman '52 and Harriet L. Weissman

Benefactors—Weissman Preservation Center

To be in the presence of Jan Merrill-Oldham is to experience an individual whose persona radiates joy and enthusiasm for her chosen professional, and in particular, for Harvard's Preservation Center.

We entered Jan's orbit over 11 years ago, when she gave us a tour of her workplace, then situated in Holyoke Center. Her inspiring presentation, which included introducing us to her talented staff and seeing treasures painstakingly worked upon, convinced us of the Center's value, not only to the Harvard community of scholars, but for its importance worldwide.

Since joining the Center's family, our lives have been enriched, knowing we are part of an extraordinary effort to preserve a significant cultural heritage. Jan's determination in keeping us continually informed of the Center's work and her heartwarming welcome of us on our visits, and her enormous pride in Mt. Auburn Street's expansive space, have contributed mightily to this feeling.

Jan's leadership and dedication to her profession are exemplary. We have the highest respect and admiration for her years of service to the Weissman Preservation Center and have come to greatly value her as a dear friend.