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Using The Collections

Archives and special collections at Harvard support research by Harvard faculty and students, as well as an international community of scholars. An overview of guidelines and policies governing the use of material is provided on this page. For hours, directions, and other information about specific repositories, please check the individual repository websites.




Finding Material

A search in HOLLIS+, Harvard’s online library catalog, is a good place to start looking for materials held by archives and special collections at Harvard.

HOLLIS+ searches a wide array of materials including finding aids for archives and special collections, images from visual collections, and enhanced tables of contents.

Use the “Refine My Results” categories on the left side of the HOLLIS+ screen to limit search results to, for example, archives/manuscripts, images, or a specific library.

Many HOLLIS+ records also contain links to more detailed inventories about the contents of collections – look for the Finding Aids links in HOLLIS+ records to find detailed information. Since collections vary in size from one volume to hundreds of boxes, this finding aid will help you narrow down the parts of the collection that are relevant to your research.

Harvard’s OASIS catalog is another way to search finding aids.

HOLLIS Classic can also be used to find books, manuscripts, and other material held by archives and special collections at Harvard. Use HOLLIS Classic for browsing lists of authors, titles, subjects, for searching/browsing call numbers, and for exact phrase searching.

Harvard’s HOLLIS Images catalog is an online catalog of visual material that has been digitized from libraries, archives, museums, and other collections at the University. HOLLIS Images contains descriptive records and images representing photographs, paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, architecture, decorative arts, trade cards, rubbings, theater designs, maps and plans.  New material is added to HOLLIS Images daily.


Research Assistance

Harvard librarians and archivists are available to provide collection overviews, instructions on how to locate material, suggestions for research strategy and management, and answers to basic research questions.

Contact information for reference staff at specific libraries can be found on the individual repository websites.

If you’re not sure what collection to consult, ask a librarian.

If you are unable to visit Harvard in person to conduct research, you may want to contact Harvard Research Services at Harvard Student Agencies to hire a student who can work as a proxy researcher. (Please note: the Harvard Library cannot attest to the quality of any particular researcher.)


Planning a Visit

Harvard’s archives and special collections are dedicated to balancing access to unique resources with the preservation of these materials for the future. To those ends, there are often procedures in place that researchers should be aware of before visiting a repository. General guidelines are noted below. Please contact the repository you plan to visit for more detailed information and specific policies regarding access and the use of collections.  

  • Archives and special collections stacks are closed to researchers and materials do not circulate beyond the repository reading room.
  • Advance notice of a visit is usually recommended, and some repositories require appointments. 
  • The availability of materials may depend on storage location and access restrictions. Do not count on having material available without confirmation from reference staff.
  • There may be limits on the amount of material that can be requested or used at any one time.
  • Researchers should bring valid photo ID to complete the registration process.
  • Personal property allowed in the reading room is limited, and subject to examination by reference staff.
  • Pencils, notepaper, and laptop computers may be used for note taking. Pens and highlighters are not allowed.
  • Food and drink, including gum and candy, may not be brought into the reading rooms.
  • Procedures for copying and reproductions vary by repository.     
  • Some repositories allow the use of digital cameras in the reading room, with certain limitations.


Visitors to Harvard can find information about lodging and other local resources on the Harvard Travel Services website.


Handling Special Collections

Materials in archives and special collections come in a variety of formats with a range of handling needs. Researchers should always consult the individual repositories for specific handling requirements. By following the guidelines below you will help to ensure the long-term preservation of Harvard’s archives and special collections.

  • Always handle archival and library materials with clean, dry hands.
  • Handle materials carefully and turn pages gently.
  • Use the library-supplied cradle or support with bound materials.
  • Keep documents flat on the table and do not lift them up to read.
  • Do not rest anything on the materials you are using. Special weights will be provided by the library to hold pages open.
  • When consulting material sensitive to direct handling, such as photographs, you may be required to wear gloves supplied by the library.
  • Do not rearrange folders within boxes, or items within folders. Ask the reference staff for help with any concerns about the material.

For further information on the care and handling of Archives & Special Collections see the following presentations:

Handling Harvard’s Special Collections (YouTube)

Care and Handling of Archival & Special Collections Materials (PPT)


Reproductions and Permissions

Most archives and special collections at Harvard offer services for the reproduction of collection materials for reference use or for publication, usually at a fee, and depending upon condition of the items.

Some repositories allow the use of digital cameras in the reading room, with certain limitations.

Please contact the repository that holds the material in which you are interested for more detailed information about reproduction procedures and fees.

Be sure to check with the holding repository to find out if permission is required to publish images of collection materials, and for instructions on how such images should be cited.

It is the researcher’s responsibility to determine the copyright status of material for publication, and to obtain permission from the copyright holder when needed.


Primary Sources

Primary sources are original materials created during a particular event or time period; some primary sources may be created later by participants or observers of an event. Sources include letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, and autobiographies, as well as newspaper articles and other published accounts. Primary sources also include institutional records, such as correspondence, meeting records, financial records, and administrative reports. Non-textual sources include photographs, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and three-dimensional artifacts.  Formats range from bound volumes, loose manuscripts and typescripts, to audio-visual and electronic media.


Teaching with Primary Sources

Harvard’s archives and special collections offer a unique teaching and learning opportunity for faculty and students. The hands-on discovery of early printed editions or handwritten letters creates a powerful experience that can inspire students' work and lead to a nuanced view of history and its interpretation.

Librarians and archivists are available to work with faculty to tailor sessions to meet course learning goals, to offer instruction on the material during a visit, and to provide ongoing support to students for course assignments. Visits can range from brief one-hour surveys of material chosen by faculty to reflect course themes; to sessions in which library staff select material and prepare presentations; to semester-long classes that meet regularly at the library or archive, making weekly use of the collections for teaching.

Archives and special collections reading rooms, and the research process, can be overwhelming to students. Orientation and course sessions held on site serve the very important role of introducing students to primary source research in a comfortable environment surrounded by classmates’ familiar faces.

As each site may have different requirements, faculty are encouraged to contact staff early to schedule sessions and to communicate learning goals for the course.


NEW! Instructors may use the Class Request Tool to schedule a class session at participating special collections libraries and archives.   







Collection Access Policies

The Harvard Library welcomes the use of its manuscript and archival collections for research.  Some collections, however, may not be immediately available to researchers because of institutional policies, legal requirements, donation/deposit agreements or physical condition/format. Commonly restricted materials include:

● Harvard University administrative records which are closed for 50 years from the date of creation as outlined in the 1988 and 1989 Harvard University Corporation votes

● Harvard University student, personnel, and other records pertaining to individuals which are closed for a minimum of 80 years as outlined in the 1988 and 1989 Harvard University Corporation votes

● Non-Harvard records containing personal and confidential information such as student records, personnel records, and medical records

● Government records that are currently restricted by the National Archives and Records Administration

● Collections with curatorial, donor or depositor-imposed restrictions

● Fragile items and materials in a format that is not currently usable/accessible

Summary information about access restrictions pertaining to specific collections is usually noted in collection descriptions, finding aids, inventories and/or HOLLIS records.  If you have questions about access restrictions, please contact the staff at the archive or library where the collection is held.