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Howard B. Gotlieb (1926–2005)

‘Father of modern archiving’ dies at 79

Dr. Howard Gotlieb. Photo by Fred Sway

Howard B. Gotlieb, a pioneer in the collecting of personal papers and artifacts of living authors and public figures by educational institutions, died in Boston on December 1, 2005, from complications following surgery. He was 79.

“Howard Gotlieb was an American original, wonderfully creative, always curious,” says David Halberstam, a writer of American history and national affairs and one of many notable figures whose work is archived at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

In 1963, Gotlieb was appointed director of Special Collections at Boston University and charged with building the University’s holdings. The limited resources of the University at the time did not hamper a man whose richness of personality and bold vision enabled him to approach individuals who were still alive and collect their archives.

Although some of his choices were considered idiosyncratic, Gotlieb, through flattery and charm, amassed a collection comprising the work of some 2,000 individuals in the fields of literature, criticism, journalism, drama, music, film, civil rights, diplomacy, and national affairs.


“He was far ahead of the curve in understanding the importance of the popular culture. In this he was prophetic,” Halberstam says. “When he first asked me for my papers, I had just returned from Vietnam, and I thought he was kidding. Now some 41 years and 19 books later, I realize that he sensed something in me that I had not realized about myself.”

As a result of Gotlieb’s talents, Boston University’s Department of Special Collections has become recognized as one of the foremost archival repositories in the United States, with Gotlieb sometimes referred to as the father of modern archiving. On its 40th anniversary in October 2003, Special Collections was renamed the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.

Born on October 24, 1926, in Bangor, Maine, Howard Bernard Gotlieb discovered archival work as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in post-war Germany. He was assigned to gather and collate the papers of various Nazi governmental entities. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from George Washington University and a master’s from Columbia University. He later did postgraduate work at Georgetown University and the London School of Economics before receiving his doctorate in international relations from Great Britain’s Oxford University.

After a stint as a foreign correspondent for a small press agency in Europe, Gotlieb returned to the United States and joined the staff of Yale University as a teaching associate in history and as a curator of historical manuscripts and university archivist, a position he held for seven years. Recruited by Boston University in 1963, he undertook the creation of what was described by Library Journal as “an archive that was not only useful today but that in 100 years would allow researchers to write definitively about the 20th century.”

“I consider Dr. Gotlieb a national treasure,” says news anchor Dan Rather, whose work is archived at the Gotlieb Center. “He was a first-rate scholar, a premium expert in his field, and a friend of mine for more than 40 years. His passing will be deeply mourned by not just myself, but by hundreds of others.”

A sampling of the notable figures whose papers are housed in the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center includes: Nobel Prize winners Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) and Elie Wiesel (Hon.’74); Isaac Asimov, Fred Astaire, Senator Edward W. Brooke III, Bette Davis, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Oriana Fallaci, Frances Fitzgerald, Joan Fontaine, Martha Gellhorn, Sue Grafton, David Halberstam, Angela Lansbury, Dame Alicia Markova, John Marquand, W. Somerset Maugham, John W. McCormack, a former Speaker of the House, Dan Rather, and Richard Yates.

“I loved dealing with him. Howard Gotlieb was subtle and joyous, a very special citizen of Boston, and he will be missed,” Halberstam says. Angela Lansbury, another who considered Gotlieb a friend, says, “Howard’s generosity of spirit and enthusiastic pursuit of excellence in his life’s work leaves an irrevocable marker in the lives of all of us who knew and loved him.”

Flags on the University campus were lowered to half-mast Friday in Gotlieb’s honor. A memorial service will be held at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel on January 6, 2006. Gotlieb left no immediate family members.