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Harvard's Libraries Launch "Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics"

New Contagion collection brings carefully selected historical materials from Harvard's renowned libraries, special collections, and archives to Internet users everywhere. Supported by Arcadia, the collection, which includes more than 500,000 pages of digitized books, serials, pamphlets, incunabula, and manuscripts, contributes to the understanding of the global, social-history, and public-policy implications of disease and offers important historical perspectives on the science and the public policy of epidemiology today.

January 31, 2008—Harvard University has launched a new digital library collection entitled Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics, which offers valuable insights for students of the history of medicine and for researchers seeking an historical context for current epidemiology. Created by the Harvard University Library's Open Collections Program, the new Contagion collection is also a unique social-history resource for students of many ages and disciplines. Visit the online collection at http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/contagion.

Developed with vital support from Arcadia, the Contagion collection brings Internet users into direct contact with carefully selected historical materials from Harvard's renowned libraries, special collections, and archives. These materials include digitized copies of books, serials, pamphlets, incunabula, and manuscripts—a total of more than 500,000 pages—many of which contain unique visual materials, such as plates, engravings, maps, charts, broadsides, and other illustrations.

Library materials are supplemented by explanatory pages that introduce concepts related to diseases and epidemics, historical approaches to medicine (such as "humoral theory," "domestic medicine," or "International Sanitary Conferences"), and a selection of notable men and women (including Florence Nightingale and Benjamin Waterhouse).

In addition, Contagion includes two unique sets of visual materials from the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard's Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine:

  • 91 glass lantern slides documenting an outbreak of plague in Manchuria in 1911 from Dr. Richard Pearson Strong, Harvard's first professor of tropical medicine; and
  • 130 late 18th- and early 19th-century medical satiric prints and broadsides from notable engravers and illustrators, including Thomas Rowlandson, William Hogarth, George Cruikshank, and James Gillray.

In addition to materials that provide general background information on diseases and epidemics worldwide, the Contagion collection is organized around significant "episodes" of contagious disease, including:

  • The Boston Smallpox Epidemic, 1721
  • Cholera Epidemics in the 19th Century
  • The Great Plague of London, 1665
  • "Pestilence" and the Printed Books of the Late 15th Century
  • Spanish Influenza in North America, 1918–1919
  • Syphilis, 1494–1923
  • Tropical Diseases and the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1904–1914
  • Tuberculosis in Europe and the US, 1800–1922
  • The Yellow Fever Epidemic in Philadelphia, 1793

In developing Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics, Harvard's Open Collections Program has been guided by a distinguished committee of Harvard faculty members:

  • Allan Brandt, Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and Amalie Moses Kass Professor of the History of Medicine and Professor of the History of Science—Harvard Medical School
  • Katharine Park, Samuel Zemurray, Jr., and Doris Zemurray Stone Radcliffe Professor of the History of Science—Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Charles Rosenberg, Professor of the History of Science and Ernest E. Monrad Professor in the Social Sciences—Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Barbara Gutman Rosenkrantz, Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus—Faculty of Arts and Sciences

Charles Rosenberg described Contagion as "a wonderfully accessible and invaluable tool for the scholar or student at any level. It demonstrates not only that we need to think about disease and its history, but that we can think with it—about society and its values, about government, and about changing ideas. It was an honor to have been associated with this innovative project."

Harvard libraries, special collections, and archives contributing to the Contagion collection include:

  • Andover–Harvard Theological Library—Harvard Divinity School
  • Baker Library/Knowledge and Library Services—Harvard Business School
  • Center for the History of Medicine/Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine—Harvard Medical School
  • Government Documents/Microforms Collections/Social Sciences Program—Harvard College Library
  • Harvard Law School Library
  • Harvard Map Collection/Social Sciences Program—Harvard College Library
  • Harvard University Archives—Harvard University Library
  • Harvard–Yenching Library—Harvard College Library
  • Houghton Library—Harvard College Library
  • Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America—Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
  • Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library—Harvard College Library

Through Harvard's Open Collections Program (OCP), the University advances teaching and learning on historical topics of great relevance by providing online access to historical resources from Harvard's libraries, archives, and museums. OCP's highly specialized "open collections" are developed through careful collaboration among Harvard's distinguished faculty, librarians, and curators.

The goal of the Open Collections Program is to offer a new model for digital collections that will benefit students and teachers around the world. In addition to Contagion, two other "open collections" are currently online: Women Working, 1800–1930, and Immigration to the United States, 1789–1930. An additional collection, entitled The Islamic Heritage Project, will be launched late in 2008.

"The Open Collections Program provides a way for Harvard to share its intellectual wealth with the rest of the world," stated Robert Darnton, Harvard's Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library. "By making available a half million pages and images about disease and the attempts to cope with it, OCP will bring a vast area of human experience within the range of readers and researchers everywhere. They will make of it what they will, for the basic principle behind OCP is to free the documentary record from the constraints that had restricted it to a privileged minority. Now everyone with access to the Internet can study this material, develop interpretations of their own, and we will all be the richer for it."

The Harvard University Library established the Open Collections Program in 2002, with funding from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. The program received subsequent support from Arcadia and, more recently, from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Alsaud.


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