How to...

Use Harvard Library's Special Collections and Archives

These historical documents and objects can take your research places you never expected. Open to all, here's how to access these unique materials.

What are special collections and archives?

Harvard Library is home to all kinds of historical documents and objects that can enhance your research. 

These primary source materials can range from documents to images to artifacts and more — like 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 students, faculty and researchers of all kinds can access them for years to come. We believe connecting with these materials can enhance our understanding of the present and future and take your research places you never expected. 

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 have the option 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 food and drink.
  • 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 researchers regardless of academic affiliation. 

Getting Access & Planning Your Visit

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.