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Administration and Programs

Open Collections Program


For nearly four centuries, Harvard’s libraries, archives, and museums have developed extraordinary collections that reflect the scope and the breadth of the University’s world-renowned academic programs. Today, the University opens an online window to those resources through its Open Collections Program (OCP). Through careful collaboration with Harvard’s distinguished faculty, librarians, and curators, OCP creates subject-specific, web-accessible collections, open to anyone with an Internet connection, that can support teaching and learning around the world.

OCP’s unique online collections do not duplicate individual collections of books or manuscripts. Instead, OCP offers new, virtual collections of thematically linked material selected from numerous Harvard repositories. Each collection is easily searchable on the web.

OCP focuses on historical materials that are often unique. In the words of OCP founder Sidney Verba, “The experience of working with this University’s historical materials has long been an irreplaceable part of a Harvard education. Now, by developing subject-based digital collections on topics of contemporary concern, Harvard is making that experience available to students and teachers everywhere.”

Three “open collections” have been launched between 2004 and 2008: Women Working, 1800–1930; Immigration to the United States, 1789–1930; and Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics. Additional collections, including Expeditions and Discoveries: Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age and the Islamic Heritage Project, were in development throughout FY 2008.

Significantly, OCP completed each of these collections on time and on budget, while surmounting numerous logistical challenges. These challenges include the creation of metadata; the determination of the University’s right to digitize, store, and present individual items on the Internet; and the conservation of fragile, often unique materials.

Harvard established the Open Collections Program in 2002 with support from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Subsequent support has been received from Arcadia, a charitable trust based in England, and from the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation.

Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics

Launched in January 2008, this online library collection offers important historical perspectives on the science and public policy of epidemiology today and contributes to the understanding of the global, social–history, and public–policy implications of diseases. Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics brings a unique set of resources from Harvard’s libraries to Internet users everywhere. Offering valuable insights to students of the history of medicine and to researchers seeking an historical context for current epidemiology, the collection is a unique social-history resource for students of many ages and disciplines. OCP created the collection with vital support from the Arcadia Fund.

The collection provides general background information on diseases and epidemics worldwide, and is organized around significant “episodes” of contagious disease. Digitized materials include books, serials, pamphlets, incunabula, and manuscripts—a total of more than 500,000 pages—many of which contain visual materials, such as plates, engravings, maps, charts, broadsides, and other illustrations. The collection also includes two unique sets of visual materials from the Center for the History of Medicine at Harvard’s Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. Library materials and archival materials are supplemented by explanatory pages that introduce concepts related to diseases and epidemics, historical approaches to medicine, and notable men and women.

Collections in Development

  • Expeditions and Discoveries: Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age

    Upon its launch in April 2009, Expeditions and Discoveries will deliver maps, photographs, and published materials, as well as field notes, letters, and a unique range of manuscript materials on selected expeditions between 1626 and 1953. The collection is made possible with the generous support of the Arcadia Fund.

    In the 19th and 20th centuries, Harvard University played a significant role—as underwriter, participant, collector, and repository—for pace-setting expeditions around the world. For Internet users, Expeditions and Discoveries will provide selective access to Harvard’s multidisciplinary records of those expeditions.

    The collection will feature nine major expeditions as they are reflected in the holdings of Harvard’s libraries, museums, and archives. Other materials—both published and unpublished—provide vital, contextual information on exploration in the modern age. In the aggregate, the collection will offer important—often unique—historical resources for students of anthropology, archaeology, astronomy, botany, geography, geology, medicine, oceanography, and zoology.

    In addition, users will have the opportunity to search or browse materials by discipline or region, explore holdings related to notable people, and find vital, contextual information on modern-age explorations from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from South America to Africa and Australia, and more.

    Editor's note: OCP launched Expeditions and Discoveries on April 30, 2009.

  • Islamic Heritage Project

    Late in 2005, Harvard announced the creation of a University-wide program on Islamic studies, made possible by a gift from the Alwaleed Bin Talal Foundation. The program fosters the scholarly study of Islamic history, tradition, culture, and contemporary life. Its multidisciplinary approach will expand Harvard’s coverage of the growing field of Islamic studies, enhancing the University’s ability to address increasing demands for knowledge and understanding of the Islamic tradition.

    To support this vital new program, OCP initiated a digitization project in FY08 that yielded hundreds of texts, totaling over 80,000 pages of published materials, more than 60,000 pages of Islamic manuscripts, and 59 maps by the end of FY09. The online digital collection will include rare and unique materials from the 10th through the 20th centuries of the Common Era that represent many regions, including Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Ottoman Turkey, and South, Southeast, and Central Asia; numerous languages: primarily Arabic, Ottoman Turkish, and Persian, but also Urdu, Chagatai, Malay, Gujarati, Indic languages in Khojki script, and several Western languages; and subjects, including Islam, hadith, Sufism, religious texts and commentaries (aqaid, kalam, tafsir), history (tarikh), geography, law, science (astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine, veterinary medicine, zoology), literature (adab, poetry), calligraphy, dictionaries, grammar, rhetoric, logic (mantiq), philosophy, and biographies and autobiographical works.

    OCP will launch the Islamic Heritage Project web site in September 2009.