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Open Collections Program Continues to Bring Value to Researchers

Online resources live on long after the project’s end.

woman at spinning machine

August 19, 2014—In 2002, Harvard opened another online door to its vast collections via the Open Collections Program, an early effort to design web-accessible collections to support research, teaching and learning for anyone with internet access. The initiative posted 2.3 million pages of materials from across Harvard’s libraries online, which are still regularly used by researchers.

With initial funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, subject specialists from Harvard’s libraries, archives and museums collaborated with faculty members to create the first open collection, Women Working, 1800–1930, an exploration of women’s roles in the US economy between 1800 and the Great Depression. Following the launch of Women Working, five additional collections were developed and made available online.

“We wanted to push out to the world Harvard’s unique materials,” said Megan Sniffin-Marinoff, University Archivist. “It was the library’s first real experiment in creating a robust web presence that brought together, in a series of discrete projects, a mix of digitized special collections and archives materials from multiple units across the University.”

In addition to Women Working, the collections, which received additional support from Arcadia and from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal, included: Immigration to the United States, 1789–1830; Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics; Expeditions and Discoveries: Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age; the Islamic Heritage Project (developed in association with the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program at Harvard); and Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership and Reading History.

In the three years since the last collection was uploaded, over 1.1 million users have accessed the works. 

“I’m from a modest university with modest research resources,” said Sylvia Cook, a professor at the University of Missouri—St. Louis, who found Women Working through a Google search while researching her book Working Women, Literary Ladies. “This is socialism for researchers—share the wealth!” she joked, adding, “Obviously it was a wonderful discovery, a treasure trove right on my topic.”

Cook mined Women Working, discovering information she couldn’t find elsewhere or that would require a visit to a physical location.  

“It’s good for research, but I find it’s also good for teaching because it’s so easy for students to get access to materials,” said Cook. “I teach some of the stories in my 19th-century literature course, and I couldn’t have done that before.”

Jennifer Pustz, the museum historian at Historic New England, recalled her excitement when she discovered Women Working. “When I found this website it totally rocked my world,” she said. “Ever since then it’s been bookmarked in my browser.” She relied on the site as a resource for her book Voices from the Back Stairs.

Pustz continued, “These sites make it so much easier for organizations that have very little money or not as much library access to get to primary source materials. It’s really great to have an open door to a resource that a lot of people perceive to be closed,” Jennifer said. “It’s always exciting to see what’s online at Harvard.”