Houghton Library Collections Strategy

The guiding principles and collecting priorities for our collection.

The Houghton Library Collections Strategy articulates guiding principles, collecting priorities, and out-of-scope materials that inform our decisions when we add to our collections. For further details, read a statement by the library's director Thomas Hyry.

Guiding Principles


Houghton acquires collections to serve the needs of all who wish to use them. The acquisition of new collection material contributes to our efforts to create an inclusive and welcoming environment.


Houghton seeks to document the broadest possible range of human experience. We will consciously work to augment the documentation of the experiences of those currently underrepresented in our holdings.


We collect and steward holdings, especially those from marginalized or vulnerable creators and communities, in ways that avoid exploitation and harm.


Houghton exists within a rich system of libraries at Harvard University and within a range of campus, local, national, and international networks and communities. We build collections collaboratively and ethically within these networks whenever possible.


Houghton focuses on acquiring original materials or those not easily accessible elsewhere in order to add to the overall corpus of knowledge available in libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions worldwide. 


Houghton acquires collections rich in interrelationships with existing holdings, in strategic areas for growth, and according to the anticipated future needs of our users. We value the connections between collections in the library and therefore emphasize building deep collections in a selective number of areas.


Houghton acquires materials so they can be used. We factor anticipated use for research, teaching, and other library activities into our decisions while celebrating the fact that our collections will be used for purposes we cannot predict. 


We assume full responsibility for ensuring long-term access to and preservation of the collection material we acquire. Our ability to steward collections effectively represents an important factor in our decisions to acquire and retain collections for the library.

Collecting Priorities by Department

The Early Books and Manuscripts department is working to diversify the collection beyond its historical focus on white men of European origin in order to more fully represent the lives of those in other areas and of other ethnicities. To redress other biases in past collecting, we also seek to acquire works by and for women and materials that document the history of LGBTQ people. As more texts are made available digitally, we will prioritize collecting unique materials or those with features that reward use of a physical copy. Finally, the department will continue to acquire works in many of its traditional areas of strength, most significantly the history and literature of America, Great Britain, and European countries; the history of the Western Hemisphere and the Transatlantic world; physical sciences and mathematics; and book history. 

Modern Books and Manuscripts is actively expanding its collecting into popular culture and the counterculture of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries and adding new genres such as comics and graphic novels; pulp fiction, including science fiction; collections of printed ephemera; samizdat; and zines. Topically, the department continues to respond to and support changes of curriculum within the University. This includes additional emphasis on Afro-Latin American history; gender and sexuality; the literature and history of under-represented and oppressed groups throughout the world; the environment; and the history of the eastern and southern periphery of the USSR. It continues to collect in areas of traditional strength, such as American, Latin American, British, French, Russian, and Spanish literature; the Russian Revolution; the history of missionaries and missions; publishing history; association books; and non-American women’s history. 

The Woodberry Poetry Room is actively collecting poetry and literary audio-visual recordings from the period of early recorded sound to the present, as well as related books, correspondence, and printed matter. We are particularly interested in literary readings, lectures, and workshops; poets’ theatre productions; verse radio and indie TV programs; literary documentaries; and oral histories, interviews, and raw footage of poets. As a creator of A/V recordings, we are focused on building upon the library’s pre-existing collections and commissioning new recordings of poets from historically underrepresented communities in the United States, including Asian-American, African-American, Latinx, and Indigenous authors. The Poetry Room also seeks to be responsive to other evolving curricular needs and to new directions in our field by collecting materials that are exemplars of contemporary trends and experiments in the art form.

The Harvard Theatre Collection is focused on developing collections relating to performances staged by or involving overlooked and marginalized individuals and communities, particularly in the United States. Current collecting priorities also include drag and other forms of cross-cultural performance, prisons and the performing arts, and the history of comedy. The papers of prominent American playwrights, actors, theatrical organizations, and designers, as well as the archives of individual photographers and photography collections related to the performing arts remain of central importance. Beyond the dramatic stage, we continue to acquire materials in areas of traditional strength that include the ballet and other participatory styles of dance, opera, and a broad range of historical forms of popular entertainment.

The department of Printing and Graphic Arts is in a period of transition between curatorial appointments and is not actively expanding its collection at present. The next era of P&GA will broaden the scope of its existing collecting strengths beyond the art, design, and production of the book in pre-21st century Western Europe and North America. It will achieve this by redirecting its focus to bookmaking, writing, printing, typography, illustration, and early photography of other indigenous and diasporic world cultures from all periods, as well as to modern and contemporary exemplars of the lineage of printing and graphic arts technologies, and to new media.

Out of Scope

The following materials are out of scope for our collections at this time.