Megan Sniffin-Marinoff

Megan Sniffin-MarinoffPhotograph by Stu Rosner

“Want to see some cool stuff?” asks University archivist Megan Sniffin-Marinoff with an expectant grin, reaching for a library cart loaded with treasures from the vault. In one folder, a plaintive letter from then-undergraduate John Hancock to his sister in 1754 (“I wish you would spend one hour in writing to me…”); in another, pictured above, an 1837 “class book” in which senior Henry David Thoreau reflects on his Harvard career (“those hours that should have been devoted to study have been spent scouring the woods…”). There’s W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1895 doctoral dissertation, with his handwritten corrections; a 1980s Lampoon letter jacket; a 1963 interview request to Malcolm X from journalist Theodore White ’38. Harvard archivist since 2004, Sniffin-Marinoff grew up on Long Island and studied journalism at Boston University; working at local newspapers afterward, she found herself a researcher more than a reporter. A master’s at NYU—in history, with a secondary focus on archives—led to a job at NYU’s archives. Stints at Simmons College and MIT followed, then the deputy directorship at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library, and, finally, the post at Harvard. Its vast archives are the oldest of their kind in the country. She and her staff are finishing a project to digitize and catalog half a million colonial-period records; soon they’ll tackle the nineteenth century. Along the way, they’re finding long-buried stories of women and people of color indirectly documented in centuries-old diaries, letters, and ledgers. “We spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to ‘document Harvard,’” says Sniffin-Marinoff. One important answer: unearthing the hidden layers of a campus—and a country—“that was always more complex than it seemed.” 

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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