Inside the four-story, glass-and-concrete building near Harvard Square, past busy coffee shops and restaurants, Harvard social clubs, and a flower store, women and men in white ministered to rare books and unique materials from Harvard Library to save them from the ravages of time.
It was a spring afternoon, and specialists at the Weissman Preservation Center labored with a mix of tenderness and skill at the conservation lab on the fourth floor, where entry is restricted. In one corner, Alan Puglia, senior rare book conservator, was mending tears in a letter book kept by an American diplomat during the years of the American Revolution.
Near him, Catherine Badot-Costello, book conservator for special collections, used tiny spatulas to turn the pages of an old photo album from Tozzer Library of the Bakuba, a pre-colonial society in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Across from her, Christopher Sokolowski, paper conservator for special collections, was using a binocular microscope that can magnify images up to 15 times to find loose layers of paint in an illustrated Bible made in France in the 14th century.
The center, on Mount Auburn Street and named in honor of Paul M. Weissman ’52 and Harriet L. Weissman, preserves rare books, manuscripts, drawings, maps, photographs and other treasures held in repositories across Harvard’s libraries. Its window wall faces north and allows maximum use of natural light.
Last year, conservators took preservation action on 16,000 items, said Brenda Bernier, James Needham Chief Conservator and Head of Weissman Preservation Center and Collections Care. Work included treatment, preparation for exhibition or digital imaging, and repair. But preservation, she said, shouldn’t be confused with restoration.
“If we find a loose page, we’d secure it, but if there’s a loss, we’re not painting that loss,” said Bernier. “We’d stabilize it by adding a material sympathetic in tone, but we wouldn’t try to recreate the image. That’s in the realm of restoration. Our goal is to make these collections stable and usable by students, faculty, and researchers, now and in the future.”
Among the items treated last year were English manor rolls on parchment, 1282 to 1770, from Harvard Law School Library; early 20th-century advertising posters from Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library; and two ceremonial swords. One of the swords was used by actor Edwin Booth in “Hamlet” and belongs to the Harvard Theatre Collection at Houghton Library. It is currently on exhibition at Houghton’s “Shakespeare: His Collected Works.”