The Library Turns 150!

Happy 150th Birthday to the MCZ Library!


By Robert Young, Special Collections Librarian

Two years after founding the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Louis Agassiz raised the funds to purchase Belgian paleontologist Laurent Guillaume de Koninck’s collection of fossils and books, with the latter priced at four thousand dollars—about one dollar per volume.

Laurent Guillaume de Koninck

(Belgian paleontologist Laurent Guillaume de Koninck sells
his collection of fossils and books to MCZ for $4,000.)

These books, combined with much of Agassiz's private collection, became the nucleus of the museum's library. The bound, annotated de Koninck catalogue, the library's first accession book, is therefore a cornerstone of the library, and it holds pride of place in the library's Special Collections.

In 1861, the library did not have its own space in the new museum building, and the books were shelved in a laboratory gallery. During its earliest years, Jules Marcou and Alex ander Agassiz were in charge of the library, with Marcou cataloging the collection by subject.  (Today, the Special Collections catalog is named Marcou in honor of the MCZ’s first librarian.) As the collection grew, the Reverend John B. Perry, a paleontology assistant, worked on arranging the books, and his profuse annotations can be seen in the de Koninck catalogue.In 1869, Dr. F. R. Staehli took charge of the library, simplifying the subject divisions and overseeing the acquisition of Christoph Zimmermann’s entomological book collection.  A year later, Reverend Perry again devoted part of his time to running the library.

Agassiz in his library, 1861

When an addition to the MCZ was constructed in 1871-72, the museum hired its first full-time librarian, Ms. Frances M. Slack, who held the position for twenty-eight years, a period of expansion during which the library became more of a formal operation.  Exchanges became a key method of acquisition, with the MCZ sending out its own publications such as the MCZ Bulletin in trade for the output of other scientific institutions. By 1877, MCZ  director Alexander Agassiz reached out to the Harvard College Library to cooperate with other Harvard libraries, to avoid unnecessary duplication of print acquisitions.

Alexander Agassiz Josiah Dwight Whitney
Alexander Agassiz Josiah Dwight Whitney

When Professor Josiah Dwight Whitney presented the greater part of his geological library to the MCZ in the mid-1890s, Alexander Agassiz encouraged the Harvard College Library to transfer its geological holdings to the MCZ.  Whitney’s collection was shelved adjacent to the library, prompting the museum to cut through a wall to connect the areas.

In 1900, entomology assistant Samuel Henshaw became the new library director, and his first order of business was to combine the geological works and government survey reports into one collection, as well as begin a shelf catalog.  Henshaw overhauled the arrangement of the stacks and transferred many ethnology books and serials to the Peabody Museum as well as botanical works to the Gray Herbarium and other Botany departments.  Having that extra space made it possible to incorporate the geology works transferred from Gore Hall (Widener Library’s predecessor).  Henshaw’s biggest legacy as MCZ librarian was instituting the practice of transfers.  

After serving as assistant librarian for eight years, Eleanor K. Sweet (later Mrs. James L. Peters) succeeded Henshaw as library director in 1924.  Mrs. Peters transferred many maps and non-zoological travel volumes to the Institute for Geographical Exploration and physiological journals to the Biological Institute.  She oversaw the constant exchange of materials between the MCZ Library and Widener, as well as the key bequests of William Brewster (ornithological books and manuscripts), Walter Faxon (crustacea and Alexander Wilson items), and Samuel Garman (Linnaeana and early works on fishes and reptiles).  Mrs. Peters also set up a pamphlet collection as well as a program to clean, repair and bind volumes, and she employed Harvard students as part-time assistants, improved the state of the card catalog, and began storing “treasure books” in fireproof cases.    

In 1927, new MCZ director Thomas Barbour added another stack room to the library, increased the shelving in the other stack rooms, and installed electric lights in the stacks and above the reading-area tables.  Four years later, the library expanded again, with stacks being added to the two remaining rooms on the north side of the second floor.

Thomas Barbour

(The library expanded twice under the 1927-1946 tenure of
Herpetologist and Director of the MCZThomas Barbour)

By the early 1930s, the library received income from three special funds: the Willard Peele Hunnewell Memorial Fund (for book purchases, mostly entomological); the Maria Whitney Fund (for the Whitney collection, mostly used for binding); and the Louis Cabot Fund (for purchasing books on travel, sport and natural history).  Other benefactors in the earliest decades include three generations of the Agassiz family--Louis, Alexander, and George--Samuel Henshaw and Thomas Barbour.  Important donated private book collections (in addition to those noted above) have come from Hermann August Hagen (entomology), John E. Thayer (ornithology), William McMichael Woodworth (worms), and Louis Cabot via transfer of Henry B. Bigelow (travel and zoological exploration). 

William E. Schevill took over management of the MCZ Library in 1937, when it became the Harvard depository for state and provincial geological surveys.  Schevill oversaw a two-year special binding project, simplified accession routines, supervised record checking for the new edition of The Union List of Serials, and improved the card catalog.

In 1943, assistant librarian Margaret A. Frazier became the director, and her work was complicated by the U.S. Navy requisitioning some library space for use as classrooms during World War Two.  Mrs. Frazier tried to compensate for the loss of stack area by setting up shelves in a storage room on the south side of the museum, but her plan was thwarted by the fact that the floor there could not support the weight of such stacks.  Regaining her stacks at war’s end proved crucial, as the library then absorbed large collections from the Boston Society of Natural History and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Robert L. Work took the library’s helm in 1947, when all processing duties were moved from the “service area” to the former Whitney Library room.  Mr. Work instituted changes in circulation methods, interlibrary loan procedures, and serials record keeping.  Two years later, in June 1949, nearly one thousand rare books and manuscripts were deposited into Houghton Library, which had better storage conditions.

When Jessie Bell MacKenzie became library director in 1951, she saw to it that decreasing the cataloging backlog became her top priority and set in motion the long awaited inventory of the library’s holdings.

Fourteen years later, in 1965, Tomislav Munetic succeeded Ms. MacKenzie and streamlined the library’s collections, eliminating much of the pamphlet collection, composed essentially of duplicates of periodical holdings.  The library expanded into (according to the 1965-66 MCZ Annual Report) “the last possible room available to it,” and renovations would considerably increase the stack area.

Ruth Edmonds Hill became director of the library in 1967, when a project began to have the card catalog printed in book form (8 volumes, G.K. Hall, 1968).  Due to the shortage of shelving space, renovations continued, and with the new flooring and lights, the library became much more “pleasant,” as the 1966-67 MCZ Annual Report put it.  Shelf-reading, shifting and cleaning became regular duties under Mrs. Hill’s direction, and the large cataloging backlog gradually decreased--a process slowed when shelf-reading would turn up items without catalog records.  An art inventory began as well, cataloging the paintings, drawings and objets d’art owned by the museum. Several items were sent to the Fogg Museum for restoration, cleaning, matting and framing, while library staff worked on re-matting and storing others with acid-free enclosures.

In 1969, when the library put out a call for overdue materials to be returned, hundreds of books made their way back, including many long considered missing.  New loan periods for graduate students were then put into place, and a healthier attitude regarding borrowing from the library generally ensued.

Mrs. Hill resigned in May 1977 to devote more of her time to managing the career of her husband Hugh Morgan Hill (the storyteller known as Brother Blue), and cataloger Jane Baldwin served as acting librarian for nine months.  Eva Stanovska Jonas then took over in February 1978, and the Czech native ambitiously announced her plans to rearrange the journal holdings, rehouse the rare materials in a Special Collections department, and convert many of the library’s holdings to the Library of Congress classification system.  A year later, the library transferred many geological works to the new Bernhard Kummel Geological Library (collections now housed in Cabot). Mrs. Jonas’s most important achievements were in improving the library’s security and technology, including incorporation of the online catalog HOLLIS.

In October 1995, the MCZ Library was renamed for Harvard biologist and former MCZ director Ernst Mayr, long a champion of the library.

Ernst Mayr
(The MCZ library is renamed for Ernst Mayr in 1995)

Four years later, Connie Rinaldo became the director, ushering the library into the twenty-first century with digital projects such as Harvard’s Library Digital Initiative (LDI) project, providing access to the Jacques Burkhardt Collection of watercolors and drawings and other Thayer Expedition papers; the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), a consortium of twelve natural history libraries; and HUL’s Open Collections Program. In 2006, the Houghton Deposit books were returned, and most print journal collections in the Biological Laboratories Library were relocated to the Ernst Mayr Library.


Harvard University.  Museum of Comparative Zoology.  Annual Report (Cambridge, Mass.: MCZ, 1950-1969).

Harvard University.  Museum of Comparative Zoology.  MCZ Newsletter (Cambridge, Mass. : MCZ, 1977-1979).

Jonas, Eva S., and Regen, Shari S.  “Museum of Comparative Zoology Library--The Agassiz Library, Harvard University” in Ellis Mount (ed.), Sci-Tech Libraries in Museums and Aquariums(New York: Haworth Press, 1985).

Work, Robert L.  “Ninety Years of Professor Agassiz’s Natural History Library,” Harvard Library Bulletin, v. 6, no. 2 (Cambridge, Mass., Spring 1952)