Tom Peterson owns a book collection of 4,000 technology volumes dating back to the 1500s. His favorites include a first edition Galileo; an early edition Benjamin Franklin; and an original signed photograph of Albert Einstein. Over the years, he has had many of his own rare books restored, and valued the results, so he wanted to do the same for MIT.
Recently, Peterson gave the Institute $1.5 million to establish the Thomas F. Peterson Jr. (1957) conservator position at MIT Libraries. The gift will make it possible for MIT’s collection of rare books and materials to be preserved in perpetuity.
Peterson’s gift is one of the largest ever made by an individual to the MIT Libraries. “I just wanted to get this project started,” he says. “I really wanted to preserve rare books for scholars to use 500 years from now.”
Peterson came to MIT in 1953. He continued his studies until his father fell ill, which prompted him to return to Cleveland to work in the family business. He joined Preformed Line Products, a manufacturer of components for the energy and communications industries, where he spent 10 years and rose to executive vice president. Then, he launched his own company, Motion Picture Sound Inc., a firm that produced sophisticated audio for movies and television. The company edited film, added music to industrial films, and recorded the voices of narrators. His clients included the Pentagon, PBS, NASA, and Disney World. Peterson was in business for 20 years before turning his love for invention into three electrical technology patents.
In the 1970s, Peterson began collecting rare books. “I wanted MIT to be able to preserve books in a fully professional way. If there is a 200-year-old edition in need of repair, I did not want someone to say, ‘What’s another five years before we restore it?’ I wanted to be sure there were funds available now,” says Peterson, quoting Lawrence Clark Powell, an author and librarian, who said, “No university in the world has ever risen to greatness without a correspondingly great library.”