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Administration and Programs

Open Collections Program

Open Collections Program


Over the course of 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. The Open Collections Program (OCP) has opened an online window to a significant share of those resources through careful collaboration with Harvard's distinguished faculty, librarians, and curators. In result, OCP has created a series of subject-specific, web-accessible collections, open to anyone with an Internet connection, that can support teaching and learning around the world.

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."

Four "open collections" were launched prior to FY 2010: Women Working, 1800-1930; Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930; Contagion: Historical Views of Diseases and Epidemics; and Expeditions and Discoveries: Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age. Two additional collections, the Islamic Heritage Project and Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History, were completed in FY 2010.

Islamic Heritage Project

Through a new collaboration among Islamic-studies scholars, librarians, and curators, Harvard University has cataloged, conserved, and digitized Islamic manuscripts, maps, and published texts from its renowned library and museum collections. The result is a new online collection comprising more than 145,000 digital pages available to Internet users everywhere. Entitled the Islamic Heritage Project, or IHP, the collection is made possible with generous support from Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal. Visit IHP online at

The Islamic Heritage Project is an integral part of the University's Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Islamic Studies Program (ISP). Founded in 2006, ISP builds on Harvard's strong commitment to the study of the religious traditions of the world, and it augments the University's existing strength by increasing the number of faculty focused on Islamic studies. ISP created the Islamic Heritage Project in collaboration with OCP to share important aspects of the University's intellectual wealth—specifically by developing a dynamic digital collection that supports teaching and research.

The IHP collaboration is a unique initiative that identifies, preserves, and digitizes historically significant Islamic materials and makes the resulting images available on the Internet. IHP includes over 260 manuscripts, 270 printed texts, and 50 maps selected by Harvard's distinguished faculty in consultation with bibliographers, librarians, and museum curators. On a case-by-case basis, every item was reviewed and cataloged—and in many cases given careful conservation treatment—by conservators in the University Library's Weissman Preservation Center.

To create the online collection itself, the OCP project team produced digital copies of more than 145,000 pages that are now web-accessible.

"Through the generosity of Prince Alwaleed," notes William A. Graham, Murray A. Albertson Professor of Middle Eastern Studies in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Dean of the Faculty of Divinity, "Harvard is actively sharing parts of its rich library holdings for the benefit of the worldwide community of scholars of Islam. With the Islamic Heritage Project now launched, any Internet user can locate often unique primary and secondary resources in Harvard collections, access them on the web, and incorporate them into teaching and research."

Today, IHP users can search or browse complete reproductions of Islamic manuscripts and published texts that date from the 13th to the 20th centuries CE and represent many

  • regions, including Saudi Arabia, North Africa, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, and South, Southeast, and Central Asia;
  • languages, primarily Arabic, Persian, and Ottoman Turkish; also Urdu, Chagatai, Malay, Gujarati, Indic languages, and several Western languages; and
  • subjects, including religious texts and commentaries, Sufism, history, geography, law, and the sciences (astronomy, astrology, mathematics, medicine); poetry and literature; rhetoric, logic, and philosophy; calligraphy, dictionaries and grammar, as well as biographies and autobiographical works.

Users can browse three basic genres—published materials, manuscripts, and maps—or search catalog records that detail the full IHP collection. A virtual keyboard allows users to enter queries and search terms in Arabic.

Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History

Developed by OCP with generous support from the Arcadia Fund, Reading is an online exploration of the intellectual, cultural, and political history of reading as reflected in the historical holdings of the Harvard Libraries. Visit the collection at

"Although reading happens everywhere," states Robert Darnton, Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor and Director of the University Library, "we don't know what it is when it takes place under our nose. How do we make sense of typographical marks embedded on a page? How did other people in other times and places decipher signs in other languages? The process of reading lies at the heart of our most intensely human activity, the making of meaning, and therefore deserves study as a crucial element in all civilizations, even those without modern means of communication, where natives learn to read footprints in the sand and clouds in the sky as meaningful portents. Curiously, however, the study of reading has only recently become part of the larger effort to interpret cultural systems. Why this neglect? In part because we are so familiar with reading that we fail to see its problematic character, in part because we have not located sources for systematic research.

"The source material abounds," Darnton continues, "but it must be quarried out of locations that are inaccessible to most people—manuscript diaries, commonplace books, correspondence, instruction manuals, library records, fictitious and graphic representations. By assembling evidence from a wide variety of its holdings, the Harvard University Library intends to make this exciting field of study accessible to everyone, everywhere. Beginning students can explore different aspects of it, and advanced researchers can pursue primary material in highly specialized areas. By opening its holdings to the general public in this digital collection as in the earlier projects of its Open Collections Program, Harvard hopes to promote the cause of open access in general."

Reading offers highly selective views from the Harvard library collections on reading as an acquired skill, as a social activity, and as a valued and engaging individual act. The materials digitized for Reading are drawn from unique holdings of the Harvard University Archives, the rare book and manuscript collections of Houghton Library, and the Historical Textbooks Collection in the Monroe C. Gutman Library of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Additional materials reflect special collections in the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the world-renowned humanities and social-science holdings of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library. For Internet users worldwide, Reading provides unparalleled digital access to a significant selection of unique source materials, including more than 800 published books and 400 manuscript materials.

OCP Collections and Social Media

With the advent of social media, the research and collaboration habits of Internet users has changed and will continue to change rapidly for the foreseeable future. To reflect habits as we know them today, the narrative and discovery pages in each OCP collection now features a "share/e-mail/join" tool that can be viewed quickly at The tool facilitates the user's bookmarking and sharing habits by providing dedicated links to Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, Blogmarks, StumbleUpon, and Google Bookmarks; facilitates a user's interest in e-mailing an OCP page link to any e-mail address; and invites the user to join the OCP Facebook community.

OCP first engaged social media with collections launched in 2009. Earlier collections have been retrofitted to engage users of social media.


With the successful launch of these two programs and the end of FY 2010, the Open Collections Program has completed its service to Harvard University. OCP has advanced Harvard's capacity for creating complex digital collections through its emphasis on cross-University collaboration, excellence in digitization, enhanced metadata, and highly detailed workflows.  Each of the program's six open collections is the product of careful collaboration with Harvard's distinguished faculty, librarians, and curators. These collections bring over 2.3 million digitized pages, including more than 225,000 manuscript pages, to the Internet—and to any researchers with an Internet link.

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.

In a review published in the April 2010 issue of College and Research Libraries News, Gene Hyde, the Radford University librarian, stated, "Through careful selection, thoughtful presentation, and excellent digitization, OCP provides online users with solid research materials from Harvard's extensive holdings. Researchers with an interest in any of the topics in OCP's holdings will want to start their research here."

As of July 1, 2010, OCP's online collections are curated by the Harvard University Archives.