Gift Will Help Preserve Photos

The sassy old saying “Take a picture, it’ll last longer” never rang truer than it does today, as a $2.1 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation breathes new life into Harvard University Library’s (HUL) efforts to preserve its massive collection of photographs.

According to a Monday press release published by HUL, the Mellon grant will allow the library’s Weissman Preservation Center to hire a senior photograph conservator and a slew of specialized restoration technicians—all positions that did not exist before the grant was awarded.

Of the Mellon money, $1.25 million will go into an endowment fund to support the new staff, while the remaining $850,000 will go toward “ongoing cataloging and rehousing initiatives” for the 7.5 million photographs in Harvard’s holdings.

The Mellon Foundation, which has awarded more than $10 million to photo conservation projects in America since 1997, started its relationship with the Weissman Center in 2001 when it paid for a round of inventory and status checks administered in all 47 of the University’s photo repositories.

“We started the Mellon grant with sort of a study initiative,” said Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian Jan Merrill-Oldham. “The first question was, ‘What do we need?’ And you can’t answer that question without knowing what we have and what shape it’s in. We needed to get a bird’s eye view of all the materials.”


In digging through all the campus repositories, Merrill-Oldham and her colleagues realized just how enormous Harvard’s photo collection was—and how quickly some of its rarest elements were deteriorating. The old daguerreotypes and salt prints needed cleaning, the prints needed to be rehoused into archival containers and nitrate negatives had to be placed into cold storage. It became clear that a major push for conservation was absolutely necessary.

So HUL applied for a second grant. Now that they’ve got it, Merrill-Oldham says, they can start searching for people to fill the new positions—and the senior conservator job will be a crucial one. “We need that leadership before we can go further, because you want that kind of expertise on the staff before you put the hard plans into place,” she said.

Despite the lack of specific plans, Merrill-Oldham envisions a photography restoration campaign that will match the Weissman Center’s already stellar book and paper program. Their office, currently housed on the eighth floor of the Holyoke Center, is set to move into a new HUL building that is being built at 90 Mt. Auburn St.

At Holyoke, their rooms are deceptively quiet, as a crew of devoted conservators labor at tiny prints, broken books and stained manuscripts.

A 16th-century map of Spain floats in a tub of deionized water, while a damaged Russian poem is repaired nearby using starch paste and Japanese Tanguzo strips.

The conservators, all buried in their work, reminisce about the time Emily Dickinson’s cake-stained drafts came through the office, and the time they had to restore a set of handwritten SOS notes from the Boxer Rebellion.

There’s a thin line, they say, between fixing what’s broken and erasing crucial bits of history.

Dickinson’s cake stains, for example, were left alone and marveled at, while Pinnochio’s broken binding was retied and reglued.

Merrill-Oldham predicts similar dilemmas to arise with Harvard’s photographs—which include half a million shots of the moon taken in the 1850s, as well as a cache of images related to e.e. cummings ’15, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Class of 1821, William James and Rainer Maria Wilke.

Indeed, Harvard has been collecting photographs for 150 years, and according to Merrill-Oldham, the earliest and rarest specimens will likely be digitized and posted online so the originals can be catalogued, displayed or sent to the Harvard Depository for safekeeping.

“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,” said HUL Director and Pforzheimer University Professor Sidney Verba ’53 in Monday’s press release.

“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,” he said.

—Staff writer Leon Neyfakh can be reached at