01 Jun 2011

Where Conservation Means Business

In the Baker Library Historical Collections’basement conservation lab, yesterday’s ledgers are tomorrow’s research materials
by Roger thompson

Stepping into the workaday world of Priscilla Anderson is like taking a step back in time. While most professionals spend their days tethered to computers and handheld communication devices, the tools of Anderson’s trade are more prosaic — a scalpel, a soft-bristle brush, tweezers, a razor knife, Q-tips, and the like. As collections conservator at the Baker Library | Bloomberg Center, Anderson skillfully wields such low-tech implements in pursuit of her daily mission: ensuring the physical well-being of the library’s priceless treasure of business books and records.

“No other business school has a historical collection to rival HBS,” Anderson proclaims. The raw numbers she cites to back that up are impressive: Baker houses more than 350,000 noncirculating historical volumes occupying 28,000 linear feet of shelving over two basement floors of climate-controlled — 60˚F and 40 percent humidity — stacks. That’s more than five miles of shelves filled with a trove of historical documents, from 15th-century Medici account books and 18th-century Dutch ledgers, to 19th-century New England textile mill records, volumes of R.G. Dun & Co. credit reports, business archives from Lehman Brothers and Polaroid, and HBS historical records. (Read about all the collections.)

Not everything in the historical collection requires conservation. Still, even documents in good physical condition need to be sorted and cataloged to make them accessible to professors, students, and researchers. “Our mission is to make them available for use,” says Anderson, not treat them like untouchable, museum-like artifacts.

For the School’s first 97 years, Baker had no conservation staff or lab to perform the work, so documents in need of treatment had to be sent to contract conservators. But that changed with the renovation and expansion of Baker | Bloomberg, completed in the fall of 2005. With support from the High Meadows Foundation, the library added a state-of-the-art conservation lab; hired Anderson and a conservation technician, Lisa Clark; and developed an ambitious conservation program. Complementing that effort, the renovated building features a Historical Collections reading room named in honor of the de Gaspé Beaubien family’s support for the collections and for exhibits linking the past and present, such as the recent “Buy Now, Pay Later: A History of Personal Credit”.

Conservation work performed by Anderson and Clark is slow, tedious, precise, and absolutely essential to preserve documents for future use. One project that Anderson has spent a lot of time on lately is removing amber-colored dried tape anchoring the corners of early 20th-century photos from the United Fruit Company archives. Seventy-five photo albums document decades of social and business history across the firm’s Caribbean, Central American, and Colombian banana plantations and company towns. Making the 10,400 photos ready for viewing requires that Anderson free each from its taped confines. Afterward, she places them in transparent Mylar sleeves to protect against dirt and handling.

On a recent day at the lab, Clark labored over attaching new bindings to four-inch-thick volumes of Moody’s financial directories from the early 1900s. And Anderson demonstrated the delicate work of making an almost invisible repair to a torn page in a Dutch commodities price ledger dating from 1719. “If you need to know the price of corn in the early 1700s, we’ve got it,” she notes with evident pride.

Some conservation requires the unexpected. For example, thousands of fragile negatives that arrived with the Polaroid archives have been stored in an upright freezer set at -15˚F. Negatives exposed to room temperature deteriorate far more rapidly than those sequestered in subzero conditions. Next to the freezer sits a vacuum seal machine used to rid books and documents of bug infestations. The airless environment inside a sealed plastic bag asphyxiates the paper-munching invaders without harming the documents.

Already without rival among business schools, the library continues to build its historical collection. In March, it received papers, photos, and memorabilia belonging to George F. Baker and his family. Baker, a New York banker reputed to be one of the richest men of his era, donated $5 million to Harvard University in 1924 to fund the construction of the new HBS campus.

Among the artifacts is a finely crafted cherry wood “Resolutions” chest containing leather-bound tributes to Baker written after his death by the boards of many of the numerous companies and philanthropic organizations he had served on. The chest was among the Baker memorabilia HBS associate professor Tom Nicholas, a business historian, brought to class this spring when he taught a case on J.P. Morgan, a close business associate of Baker’s.

“The value of the Historical Collections is immense,” says Nicholas. “Original materials constitute ‘hard evidence.’ They help students to appreciate the significance of historical context, and they provide a mechanism through which they can make more robust inferences about how the past continues to influence the present.”

Looking ahead, Baker Library Collections director Laura Linard says the library is concentrating on acquiring collections that document contemporary global business during the post–World War II era. With each acquisition comes the assurance that Baker’s conservation staff stands ready to preserve the past for benefit of the future.


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