Archives and Manuscripts

Collections at Harvard

Harvard is one of the world's largest repositories of manuscripts and archives. Most of Harvard's collections are represented in  HOLLIS, but for an in depth search for manuscripts at Harvard, you should talk with the librarians at the likely Harvard repositories.

HOLLIS searches catalog records and online finding aids.  Finding aids are searched full text and the associated catalog record is displayed with a link to the finding aid.  Many archival collections have catalog records only, with their finding aids existing only in paper in their repository.  Search in Library Catalog Advanced Search, adjusting Resource type tpo Archives/Manuscripts.

Finding aids are full-text searchable, but they do not support phrase (in "") searching if the phrase includes certain stop words like "and."  The stop word must be removed for the search to work. For example, instead of "Thoughts and Figgerings", search "Thoughts Figgerings"

A limited number of finding aids which are very long are not fully indexed. Only the first ~80K words are indexed. (Affects ~ 115 finding aids, or 2%).

HOLLIS for Archival Discovery (the successor to OASIS) searches the full text of the finding aids (only, does not search catalog records).  It retrieves whole collections (listed at the top of the results), then components of collections, usually individual items (sometimes digital) or series.


Collect Subject terms from pertinent records as you do keyword searches and look for related Subject terms. Subject terms for organizations are often useful in finding personal papers. The record for the John Warren papers bears the terms "Warren, John, 1753-1815" and "Harvard Medical School Curricula". The term "medical" occurs in the Summary field. Subject searches on medicinephysicians, or surgeons will not retrieve the record for the John Warren papers.

Research Guides

Microfilm Copies of Collections at Other Repositories

Many archival and manuscript primary sources held by other repositories have been microfilmed have been purchased by Harvard. Most (other than newspapers) are available in the Government Documents/Microforms Collection in the Lamont Library Level B. Some microfilm is held by other Harvard libraries (e.g., the archives of the ACLU are at the Law School Library). Finding microfilm can be tricky unless your search is very specific. A Keyword anywhere search on “Royal Society Great Britain” yields too many records. An organization name, e.g., “Royal Society Great Britain” can be searched as an Author keyword search.  You can limit to microfilm in two ways.

  • Limit to Location: Microforms (Lamont). But Countway, Law and other libraries have some microfilm.
  • Limit the search by adding the the Subject terms: Archives or Correspondence or Diaries or Manuscripts or Notebooks or Sources. The word Papers sometimes appears in pertinent titles and may be searched as a Title keyword search, but it often yields too many irrelevant records when searched as Keyword anywhere.

In the HOLLIS record, "INDEX Film" refers to a printed guide kept on bookshelves in Lamont. Many of these guides have been digitized and are available online. Search the collection title in Google. More on microfilm including other methods of finding guides.

To see if other libraries have microform of interest, go to WorldCat. Choose Advanced Search and enter your search. You may set Subtype Limits from Any Format to Microform. Note that although Archival Materials is offered as a “Limit type to:” choice, but microfilms of archival collections are usually tagged as microfilm, not archival. These collections can often be borrowed via Interlibrary Loan.

Collections at Other Repositories

There are four major databases to search for archival and manuscript collections in the US: Archive Finder, ArchiveGrid, WorldCat, and Social Networks and Archival Context Project (SNAC).  These overlap to some extent, but each has material not in the others.

Archive Finder. Archive Finder allows limitation to Massachusetts repositories or to individual repository. It has its own subject term system (different from HOLLIS), so note their terms and search accordingly.

WorldCat does NOT allow limitation to Massachusetts repositories or to individual repository. Thus, limitation of a search, as for “civil rights” to Boston sources, must be via Subject terms (the same ones used in HOLLIS): “Boston Mass” and “Massachusetts Boston”

ArchiveGrid includes many catalog records, but also many online inventories (including OASIS). Thus much more detailed searches are possible. One cannot limit geographically, but can limit by repository by including the repository name, in quotes, in the search.

Social Networks and Archival Context Project (SNAC) extracts, structures and displays information on persons, corporate bodies, subjects, etc., from archival descriptions. Complementary to ArchiveGrid. Does not search the full text of finding aids (inventories) as ArchiveGrid does, but SNAC displays its information in a more organized form. The SNAC Prototype at present holds a relatively small number of records. Includes French as well as American repositories. Chronicle of Higher Education article on SNAC

A research guide on finding manuscripts and archival material at Harvard, elsewhere in the US, and in Europe is available.