August 3,2020: Library locations will reopen to Harvard students, faculty, and staff for the fall semester. See the full reopening schedule.

How to...

Use Harvard Library's Special Collections and Archives

Open to all, these unique materials can take you to places you never expected.

What are special Collections and Archives?

Enrich your understanding of the world with Harvard’s vast special collections and archives. Connect with a range of primary sources including letters, photographs, books, scores, digital materials, and objects. 

We collect and preserve this history so anyone can access it for years to come. Connecting with these materials can enhance your understanding of the present and future and take you to new and exciting places and ideas. 

The process for finding and requesting these rare and unique materials is different from other library materials. Use this guide as your map.

Harvard Library's special collections and archives are open to all.

New to working with primary sources?

These resources are here for you to use! Learn how to make the most of Harvard Library's rare books, manuscripts and other special collections materials.

Finding Materials


Some of our records contain language created decades ago, and may include language that is harmful or offensive. We are committed to investigating and remediating past and current oppressive practices in archival description. Please read our statement on harmful language in archival description.

Explore Collections

From books and newspapers, to one-of-a-kind primary source materials, chances are we have something for you.

Viewing Materials During COVID-19

Using Special Collections During COVID-19

While Library spaces may be closed during the pandemic, we are working to ensure special collections remain available to the Harvard community. 

As special collections and archives do not circulate and must be viewed in the holding library's reading room, we are offering new ways to use these materials. In many cases, we can scan the item and send you a PDF. In some specific cases, we can invite you to use the item in-person in Widener Library. For microfilm, we can set up a remote viewing session.

 Let us help you access to the materials and items you need for your research.

Ask for the item

  • In HOLLIS on an item's page, click "Scan & Deliver" or "View in Library"  
  • If you don't see a link, email asklib@fas.harvard.edu
  • We'll send a PDF of the object to your inbox!

Not sure if the items you'd like to see can be scanned? Wondering what is the best way to access materials? Just ask us, and we'll come up with a solution for you.

Ask a Librarian

Ways to view the item

  • PDF emailed to you: The majority of our special collections items can be scanned and sent to your inbox. 
  • Microfilm: If you need to view microfilm, we can set up a one-on-one remote session where you can view reels of microfilm from your own computer. Request remote microfilm session.
  • Special Collections Reading Room in Widener: If we cannot scan and send you a PDF, we may invite you to view it in-person in Widener Library. This is available to undergraduates and GSAS students in testing cadence A or B and who have a research need that cannot be met by Scan and Deliver or similar. If your request is eligible, a librarian will email you to schedule an appointment.

Working in a Reading Room

Once you’ve arranged to see items in a reading room, here are some things to keep in mind about your visit:

  • Library staff will be able to provide tips and guidance for handling any fragile materials.
  • Archives and special collections stacks are closed to researchers and materials do not circulate beyond reading rooms.
  • There may be limits on the amount of material that can be used at any one time.
  • Staff may limit what you can bring into the reading room, including bags and other personal property.
  • Bags may be subject to search by staff.
  • You can use pencils, notepaper and laptop computers for note taking. Pens and highlighters are not allowed.
  • There's no food or drink, including gum and candy, allowed in the reading rooms.

10 Tips for Reading Room Success

Not sure how to handle our special collections materials? These handy guidelines can help preserve Harvard's rare items for the future.

Visiting Researchers

Planning Your Visit

Due to the ongoing pandemic, our reading rooms are closed to visitors. The following are instructions for visiting researchers during normal operating times.

Harvard Library's special collections and archives are open to all, by appointment.

Contact the holding library ahead of your visit

  • To ensure the materials you need are available, contact the holding library ahead of your visit. Find library contact information.
  • During the request process you will have to pick a day on which you plan to go to view the items.
  • Items stored onsite can often be retrieved the same day. Any items that indicate they’re stored offsite or in the Harvard Depository take more time to retrieve.


To use Harvard’s special collections and archives you need to complete a registration.

  • Some libraries offer registration onsite
  • Others require you to register at the Privileges Office for a Special Collection Access Card
  • Contact the holding library ahead of time to find out their policy

Teaching with Special Collections