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. 

Explore handwritten poetry by some of the best known authors of our time, campaign materials from decades past, and images that capture people and places as they once were.

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 accessing these rare and unique materials is different from other library materials. Use this guide as your map.

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

Explore Collections

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

Viewing Materials

Request Tips

  • If you’re traveling to Harvard for a research visit, individual libraries often ask to hear from you ahead of time. That way they can ensure the materials you need are available. Find contact information for each library. 
     
  • 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.
     
  • Some items can't be requested via HOLLIS. If there is no “View in Library” option, you should contact the library that holds the materials for more information.

Going Onsite

Once you’ve submitted your requests or arranged to see items with library staff, you will be able to view the items in the holding library’s reading room. If you don't have a Harvard ID, find out more about reading room access.

Library staff will be able to provide tips and guidance for handling any fragile materials.

Here are some things to keep in mind ahead of your visit:

  • 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.

Visiting Researchers

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

Getting Access & Planning Your Visit

  • To use Harvard’s special collections and archives you need to complete a registration. Some libraries offer registration on-site and others require you to register at the Privileges Office for a Special Collection Access Card.  More about the Privileges Office location and hours. Contact the holding library ahead of time to find out their policy.
  • Some libraries ask to hear from you ahead of your visit so they can ensure the materials you need are available. Find library contact information.

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.

Teaching with Special Collections


Get Help

Have questions about a specific collection? Locating and requesting materials? Or need general help with your research? We’re here to help!

Contact a Library

If you know the library that holds the materials you're interested in, staff at that location can help answer your questions.

Find a Specialist

Browse our specialist directory to find a staff member who can help with your area of research.

Ask a Librarian

If you're not sure where you direct your question, submit it via our Ask a Librarian service and we'll connect you with the right person.