At a dinner celebrating Louis M. Lyons’s 20th anniversary as curator in 1960, former Harvard president James B. Conant gave a speech about the origins of the term “curator,” the curious title given to the head of the Nieman Foundation
We had an extraordinarily enterprising and far-sighted librarian, the monument to whom is, after all, the Lamont Library. He at once came forward with a very practical suggestion. He said, “After all, there is no clear way you can spend this money [Agnes Wahl Nieman’s bequest to Harvard] within the educational framework. But what you can do is get a first-rate collection of microfilms of current journals and keep this up to date.”
It seemed like a very good suggestion. The Corporation liked it and so we said, “Well, we’ll do that anyway. But perhaps somebody might come up with another idea or two.”
It just happened that at the same time we were wrestling with another problem, the problem of how to implement Mr. [Lucius] Littauer’s generous gift to the Littauer School of Public Administration. In that connection I’d made some inquiries in England about their scheme of in-service fellowships for government officials. And we’d discussed it in the Corporation, and I won’t attempt to reveal the inner workings of the corporate body. But let me put it in a collective sense and say that we came up—the Harvard Corporation—with the idea that it might be worth trying on publishers, to see whether they would be interested in helping us support something like an in-service group of fellows, concerned not with public service, but with journalism.
And so then the Corporation said, “Well, try it out on the Boston newspaper people.” I then had the pleasure of entertaining at my house a group of people who were then in charge of the Boston papers, and we tried it out—spelled the idea out then a little more in detail, and finally they said: “Well, we can’t think of anything better to do with the money, except what you say you are going to do anyway with a good deal of it, make this selection of films. So why not give it a try?” And so we did.
And since we were going to have somebody be responsible for this group of in-service training, these newspaper people on leave of absence—and since he was also—Mr. [Archibald] MacLeish has very conveniently forgotten—also to be responsible for this collection of microfilms … Of course, what title do you have if you take care of a collection of films? You’re a curator.