Key differences between institutional archives and manuscript collections:

  • An institutional archive is a repository that holds records created or received by its parent institution. Records collected and preserved are predominantly created by the offices or people at the institution, as opposed to a manuscript library, which collects and purchases materials according to their collecting focus.
  • HUA is the primary institutional repository for the documentation of over 400 years of Harvard’s intellectual, cultural, social, religious, and administrative history. Our goal is to gather an accurate, authentic, and complete record of the life of the University.

How HUA builds our collections:

  • We receive transfers of records and publications from Harvard’s administrative, academic, and research units at Harvard. These provide a comprehensive record of Harvard’s internal operations, and the University’s involvement in local, national, and world events.
  • We work with individual donors – including Harvard faculty, alumni, and staff – to identify materials that contribute to our collecting goals. The subjects of these collections encompass nearly every discipline taught and studied at Harvard, but also reflect a wide range of our faculty’s non-scholarly activities.
  • We also collect historical materials that document the intellectual, cultural and social life of Harvard and its surrounding communities.
  • And finally, we have a collection of theses, dissertations, and prize papers documenting the wide range of academic research undertaken by Harvard students over the course of the University’s history.

Appraisal and Selection

Because of a variety of limitations and expectations, curators are constantly making difficult decisions about what is collected and preserved at their archives. These decisions will help shape the documentation that archives holds about a given topic, event, or person. This process is called appraisal (the decision assessment) and selection (what is acquired once the assessment is complete).

The appraisal assessment is based on numerous variables, such as:

  • Relevancy to repository’s collecting mission
  • Uniqueness of item/collection
  • Relationship to other materials in the collection
  • Long-term informational or evidentiary value and/or potential for future scholarship
  • Resources available to acquire and maintain the item. Resources can include physical resources to hold the materials (space, physical plant), financial resources for its stewardship (conservation and digitization), and “human” resources (trained professionals to catalog, care for, and provide access to the item)


You are a curator at the Harvard University Archives. You are being offered potential acquisitions, but only have the resources to acquire and preserve one. Considering what you know about the Harvard University Archives and its mission, which one would you choose? Be prepared to answer both why would you choose this item and why would you not choose the other item, as well as explain what might be lost if you do not choose to preserve the other item (remember, this can be as important a consideration as what might be gained by keeping the other one).

As you explore the documents, consider the following questions:

  • What do you notice about this document that makes it interesting to you?
  • What is the function of this document?
  • What is the significance of this document in the broader landscape of history?
  • What does this document tell us about Harvard University? How is it is related to Harvard history?
  • What might make this document unique from other similar documents with the same function?
  • What research might you want to conduct in order to learn more about this document and its significance?
  • How might this item fit into your understanding of what the Archives collects?


Thinking about each of these questions should help you answer two final, vital questions:

  • Which item would you choose to “acquire” and why?
  • What are the downsides of not acquiring the other item? What information/value might you lose for your collection?



Item 1

Receipt from Anthony (Tony) Vassall to Massachusetts for £12 payment in full, acknowledged by his mark, an elongated “T,” on April 21, 1792. The inscription dockets the verso of a warrant signed by Massachusetts Governor John Hancock in Boston on February 7, 1792, ordering state treasurer Alexander Hodgdon to pay Anthony Vassall the sum of £12 for one year’s pension, to be disbursed from the proceeds of the estate of absentee John Vassall of Cambridge. Vassall generally used the forename Tony, but contemporary legal records referred to him as Anthony.

Historical information: Tony Vassall (1713?-1811) was an African American farmer and farrier in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Tony was enslaved by Henry Vassall in Cambridge in 1741 and remained enslaved there until the American Revolutionary War, when Henry’s widow, Penelope, along with other members of the Loyalist Vassall family, fled Massachusetts. After he was effectively freed, Tony, sometimes known as Anthony, chose to take Vassall as his surname. He later bought a house and farm in Cambridge and worked as a farrier, providing equine hoof care. Members of the white Loyalist Vassall family, were educated at Harvard, donated various resources to Harvard (money, items) and some of Harvard’s campus sits on property that was once owned by the Vassal family, specifically the Harvard College Observatory.


Item 2

The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1896) by W.E.B. DuBois – original doctoral dissertation for Ph.D.

Historical Information: William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (AB 1890, AM 1891, PhD 1895) was the author of The Souls of Black Folk (1903), a seminal work in African American literature. In 1895 DuBois was the first African American to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University. His Harvard doctoral thesis, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870 (1895), was the
inaugural volume of the Harvard Historical Studies series, first published in 1896. Along with William Monroe Trotter and others, Du Bois helped form the Niagara Movement, a group “militantly seeking full civil and political rights for African Americans.” Their goals began to be more fully realized with the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909.

Item 3

Basic MCS 8080, 1975, Bill Gates, Paul Allen, and Monte Davidoff. This is the code, written in 8080 assembly language, for an interpreter (language processor) for the BASIC programming language. In other words, this is version 1.1. of what became Microsoft’s first product.

Historical Information: Bill Gates (1955- ), philanthropist and founder of Microsoft Corporation, entered Harvard in the fall of 1973. In the summer after his first year, Gates reconnected with his high school friend Paul Allen while both were working at Honeywell Corp. Allen, who had dropped out of Washington State University after two years, convinced Gates to leave Harvard in 1975 to start a software company. Gates did not have a definite study plan while a student at Harvard, but he studied applied mathematics and took graduate level computer science courses. He also spent a good deal of time coding in the Aiken Computation Laboratory, sometimes with Paul Allen.