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Open House Sparks Connections

By Kaitlin Buckley, Communications Officer, Harvard Library

People at the Hidden Collections open house

What do the acoustical analysis of the JFK assassination and Greek shadow theater have in common? The projects they represent, along with many more, exist because of Open Your Hidden Collections funding. For the first time, funding recipients from across the Harvard Library community gathered in an interactive, open-house structure to share information about their projects. The Open Your Hidden Collections event brought together 16 project team members who informally presented their latest findings to a packed crowd of library colleagues. A variety of materials were displayed, ranging from topographical maps from the Harvard Map Collection to rare video clips from African American film director James Hinton, courtesy of the Harvard Film Archive. Participants discussed the challenges and successes of their projects, as well as the new skills they acquired.

Digitization of rare and fragile materials was a key topic, and for many of these projects, it is only the beginning. Creating metadata is also an important element. The Hidden Collections funding “allowed us to do much more robust descriptive work,” said Baker Library's Tim Mahoney of the Art & Business project, which focuses on the personal and professional relationship between artist Ansel Adams and Polaroid (the photographer would do product testing for the company). The Nuremberg Trials transcript project has a long history: 400,000 delicate pages needed to be fed through an advanced scanner, then cataloged and described. There are only two of these transcript projects in the world, the other one being at the National Archives; Trial 3 is the focus of the latest round of grant funding. Paul Deschner of the Law School Library remarked: “We [now] have enough momentum to scale the project up.”

Partnership across Harvard Library is also key to Hidden Collections work. “The great thing about a project like the Middle East Poster Collection is that it’s collaborative in nature," said Ali Boutaqmanti of the Middle Eastern Division. “It offered us the perfect opportunity to tap into the rich resources and network of expertise that are readily available at the library.” Imaging Services provided the digitization component, and Preservation Services reviewed items in need of treatment.

“Before Hidden Collections funding, “[certain] collections were completely untouched and inaccessible to researchers, and now huge amounts of data are accessible to all,” said the Center for the History of Medicine’s Elizabeth Coup. Countway’s four collections from microbiologists include work on the early detection of cancer, including research on the viral theory. Another project from Countway, the Beckwith papers, shines a light into the history of physician activists from the United States, many of whom were involved in antiwar and nuclear disarmament efforts. “The ultimate goal was to make available more collections of physician activists,” said Amber LaFountain of the Access to Activism project. "Being able to open these collections to research has created an opportunity to broaden the scope of what is generally thought of as medical history, as well as of what people traditionally think of as the realm of physicians’ work."

For many of the team members, their research turned up some surprising connections. Jennifer Pelose and Virginia Hunt of the Archives were able to link the separate collections of Cold War-era Harvard faculty members Samuel Beer, Paul Doty, Norman Ramsey, and Samuel P. Huntington. Their team discovered that not only did these faculty members correspond with luminaries such as Harry Truman on a range of subjects including government and science, but they also corresponded with each other as contemporaries and friends. Nada Hussein of the Middle East Division at Widener found the advertisements for long vanished Arab American businesses in New York City more fascinating than the concert program they were contained in, as part of the Haddad Mahjar Collection. In two separate photographic archives of the feminist movement in the 20th century, Joanne Donovan of the Schlesinger Library was excited to see each photographer reflected, quite literally, in the other’s work: you can often see Bettye Lane in the background of Freda Leinwand’s photographs, and vice versa—documenting the same event through a different lens.

The open house highlighted how different library collections inform and complement one another. “It was an opportunity to showcase our diverse collections, generate collection discussion, and talk about the many ways in which they are being curated in the pursuit of a common library task: provision of access to our unique collections to facilitate research and scholarship,” said Boutaqmanti.

Project manager Cathy Conroy was pleased at the turnout: “Many of the Hidden Collection project participants spent some time talking to one another and exchanging information about their experience with the program.”

Article written by Kaitlin Buckley.
Article published on November 4, 2015.