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.

Finding Materials

HARMFUL LANGUAGE WARNING

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

Using Special Collections

Special collections and archives do not circulate and must be viewed in the holding library's reading room. Let us help you access to the materials and items you need for your research.

COVID-19 Update (August 6, 2021): If you are not able to visit campus, we are working to ensure special collections remain available to the Harvard community. In many cases, we can scan the item and send you a PDF.

  • Once you’ve identified which items you’d like, click "View in Library" in HOLLIS, or in HOLLIS for Archival Discovery, a link in the upper right will provide a link to the HOLLIS record where you can request the material.
  • The "View in Library" link will connect you to the HOLLIS Special Request system. First time users will be prompted to create an account. You do not need Harvard credentials to create an account. This system is where you manage reading room requests to view special collection items.
  • 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.

REQUEST TIPS

  • Individual libraries often ask to hear from you ahead of time to ensure the materials you need are available. Find contact information for each library. 
  • 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.

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:

October 2021: If you are using one of our reading rooms, you must follow the current COVID-19 guidance for campus visitors

  • 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.
Students looking at a rare book in the University Archives

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

October 2021: Many of Harvard's libraries have reopened to special borrowers and visitors who show proof of vaccination. Please review our visitor access policies.

Harvard Library's special collections and archives are open to all, by appointment. The following are instructions for visiting researchers who are not current Harvard faculty, students, or staff.

Visiting During COVID-19

  • All visitors must be vaccinated and masks are required.
  • Review our visitor access policy to see which libraries are open and learn how to verify your vaccination status.
  • Contact the holding library ahead of time to find out their policy.

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.

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.

Teaching with Special Collections