Baker Library Exhibit: "The Human Factor"

Historic images collected by Harvard Business School in the early 1930s and 40s, documenting the interaction of worker and machine, are now on display at Baker Library.

“The Human Factor: Introducing the Industrial Life Photograph Collection at Baker Library,” will remain on display through March 7, 2007 in the Baker Library North Lobby. Gallery talks will take place on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. on November 16, January 18, and February 8. Many items from “The Human Factor” are available digitally in a permanent online exhibition at

The images were collected in the 1930s and 1940s for use in HBS classroom instruction. Donald Davenport, a Harvard Business School professor of statistics, had expressed a growing concern among his peers “that most of our students had a very vague and unrealistic conception of manpower in industry.”

To that end, Davenport and Frank Ayres, Executive Secretary of the Business Historical Society, wrote to companies requesting photographs that illustrated what Davenport called “the human factor,” the interaction of worker and machine, as well as expansive views of factory exteriors, research laboratories, and close-ups of equipment and products. Davenport hoped the images would “reveal the courage, industry and intelligence required of the American working man.”

Students could examine hard-hats operating haul trucks in the depths of the International Salt Company mines, uniformed women of the California Fruit Growers Exchange packing produce distributed by conveyor belts in cavernous factory spaces, or goggled men cleaning 25,000-ton turbine casings at Midvale Steel.

Ayres and Davenport’s persistence amassed more than 2,100 photographs dating from the 1920s to the early 1940s from 115 businesses. Now students, and America’s aspiring corporate managers, had ample visual data to study “the human factor.” But the pictures were more than documentary records. They were the work of artists such as Margaret Bourke-White, Lewis Hine, and others, who produced highly stylized images meant to instill confidence in corporate America. These images, now called the Industrial Life Photograph Collection, reveal the colliding-and sometimes competing-messages of art and industry, education and public relations, humanity and modernization.

Recognizing the unique information conveyed by these visual materials in its collection, and perhaps building on the early intentions of Davenport and Ayres, Baker Library initiated a project to identify photographic collections in the holdings of the Historical Collections Department, and to re-house, organize, and describe the images to make them more accessible to the Business School Community and outside scholars. “The Human Factor” is the first exhibition culminating from this multi-year initiative.

Curated by Melissa Banta, this first formal introduction to Baker’s tremendous photographic resources exhibits a selection of images from the Industrial Life Photograph Collection, one of Baker’s fourteen photographic collections comprised of 20,000 images.

Baker Library’s photographic collections document the history of industrial production in the United States and in South and Central America. The photographs illustrate plants, equipment, techniques, processes, and people at work in a wide variety of industries, from automobile manufacturing to paper mills and include the Automobile Industry Photograph Collection, 1931-1944; the Caterpillar Tractor Company Photograph Collection, 1927-1932; and the Early Aviation Photograph Collection, 1909-1911, among others. Today all of these collections are available to researchers in the de Gasp‚ Beaubien Reading Room in Baker Library.

For more information, contact the Historical Collections Dept. at 5-6411.