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A Gift for Openness

When Sidney Verba, Pforzheimer University Professor and director of the University Library, described the library’s fledgling Open Collections Program to members of the Overseers’ visiting committee, he said he imagined that donors would find the program attractive to support. Soon thereafter, committee member Lisbet Rausing, Ph.D. ’93, called Verba to say that she and her husband, Peter Baldwin, Ph.D. ’86, would prove him right with a gift of $5 million.

The Open Collections Program lets the University make research materials from across Harvard freely available over the Internet to anyone on Earth. "It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened at the library in my time here," says Verba, and he has been director for almost 20 years.

The program began as a pilot project in 2002 with support from the Hewlett Foundation and with Thomas J. Michalak, former executive director of Baker Library at the Business School, as director. Its debut undertaking was to gather and digitize research material on women’s roles in the U.S. economy between the Civil War and the Great Depression. "Women Working, 1870-1930," may be found at http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww. When completed in October, the site will provide access to 2,250 digitized books and pamphlets, 1,154 photographs, and about 10,000 pages of manuscripts from the libraries of Harvard College and the graduate schools of business, education, medicine, and law, as well as from the Radcliffe Institute’s Schlesinger Library and the Fogg Art Museum.

Every week or so, Michalak’s staff posts a list of additions to the site. (He notes the constraint of having to stick to materials that are out of copyright.) The list on July 17 included a 1925 U.S. Department of Labor bulletin entitled Family Status of Breadwinning Women in Four Selected Cities; Zora Putnam Wilkins’s 1923 Letters of a Business Woman to Her Daughter; Annie Louise Patrick Hillis’s 1911 The American Woman and Her Home, with a chapter on "The Home Life of Working Girls"; William C. Hanson’s report in 1912 on Hygiene of the Boot and Shoe Industry in Massachusetts; an 1898 edition of Wendell Phillips’s Speeches on Rights of Women; and Alexander Walker’s 1840 Woman Physiologically Considered, as to Mind, Morals, Marriage, Matrimonial Slavery, Infidelity and Divorce.

The project took shape with much input from a committee of faculty members of different disciplines, as well as Harvard librarians and curators and others, such as secondary-school teachers. "One faculty member would say, don’t forget the missionary and church work of women," says Michalak. "Another would say, don’t forget the importance of health and birth control. Another would say, don’t forget the work women did in the home."

Michalak has just begun a marketing effort to bring the site to the attention of potential users, and he invites feedback from teachers, librarians, and students to help improve the content, functionality, and usability of the site.

In July the library learned that the Hewlett Foundation would make a second grant for the Open Collections Program, of $1.25 million over 18 months beginning this fall. Michalak expects to use the money to expand the "Women Working" collection into the earlier nineteenth and late eighteenth centuries. He is quick to say that the on-line collection will never exhaust Harvard’s resources on this topic.

The gift from Rausing and Baldwin will fund the development by 2007 of three new subject-based websites. "We particularly hope that the Open Collections will address subjects that affect the global community and that can serve as neutral scholarly reference points in the debates of today," said Rausing in a library press release in July about the gift. (Both Rausing and Baldwin are historians. They did their undergraduate work at the University of California, Berkeley, and at Yale, respectively. He is professor of history at UCLA.)

The process of selecting topics will begin this fall, but subjects already suggested to Michalak or Verba include the global environment, the history of science in various fields, religion and religious fundamentalism, the Middle East, and the development of American industry.

"The need for a faculty leader is key for any topic we might choose," says Michalak. "If we can tie what we do closely to teaching in the College, that seems to me ideal." Says Verba, "We want to pick a big collection, full of rare materials, that is particularly valuable to share." The materials need not be in English, of course. Harvard has better collections on many nations than exist in those nations, says Verba, which is why so many foreign scholars come to Harvard to do research. "We could do a website just on Ukraine, all in Ukranian," he says. "It wouldn’t be of much use in teaching at Harvard, but of a great deal of use in Ukraine."