• Harvard University
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  • Library Notes
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  • July 2010
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  • No. 1354
Earthquakes, Jailbreaks, and Sermons: Cataloging Hidden Collections in the Archives Print

Archivists at Harvard University have uncovered many unexpected topics among hidden collections during a one-year project to describe and preserve 17th- and 18th-century holdings. The Harvard University Archives, with more than 50,000 linear feet of material ranging from 1636 to the present, is the largest collection of archival and manuscript material at the University. The project, made possible through the generous support of the Arcadia Fund, encompasses a wide range of manuscript and print materials. Over 1,260 items—including diaries, commonplace books, legal documents, correspondence, personal papers, University records, drawings, paintings, maps, scientific observations, lectures, printed books and broadsides, a medal, musical scores, student works, and satirical poetry—are included. The project's aim is twofold: to provide content-rich access to previously hidden or under-described collections through the creation of MARC records and EAD finding aids, and to stabilize damaged or fragile items for future digitization.

Project work has involved collection surveys, enhanced description, and preservation work. Taking a cue from research that demonstrates the value of content-rich descriptive metadata to optimize access and discovery, two project archivists are working in tandem with two graduate students in early American history. As the archivists process each collection, they flag materials that warrant a closer reading or additional background research by the graduate students. The project archivists incorporate the results in catalog records and finding aids. As a final step, project conservators at the Harvard University Library's Weissman Preservation Center repair and clean at-risk items identified by the archivists.

These materials provide rich, varied, and extensive information about the cultural, social, economic, legal, religious, and political history of New England over two centuries, allowing insight into the material culture of colonial life, the costs of goods and services, the books that influenced thought and education, the legal and social concerns of citizens, and myriad other aspects of life in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Materials cataloged so far include the John Hancock Collection; Richard Saltonstall's commission as Justice of the Superior Court of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, issued by King George II in 1745; the papers of colonial scientist and professor Samuel Williams; Records of Grants for Work among the Indians, related to missionaries sent to Stockbridge and Oneida settlements; the diaries of Benjamin Guild and Elias Mann; and several rare printed volumes, among a wide range of print and manuscript materials. In the first four months of the project, over 150 MARC records and a dozen finding aids were created or updated and are now accessible online through Harvard's HOLLIS and OASIS catalogs.

For more information, contact project manager Jennifer PeloseThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it .

Arcadia is the charitable foundation of Lisbet Rausing and Peter Baldwin. Since inception in 2001 Arcadia has awarded grants in excess of $192 million. Arcadia works to protect endangered treasures of culture and nature. For more information please see www.arcadiafund.org.uk.