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COLLECTION Identifier: UAIII 50.8

Harvard College Library letters


This collection documents the operation, growth, and professionalization of the Harvard College Library during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Records chiefly consist of bound scrapbooks of correspondence produced by or during the everyday functions of Harvard librarians and other library staff, regarding library building conditions (especially overcrowding in Gore Hall), acquisition and collection development, library finances, new policies for patron services and library management, and reference requests. In addition to documenting Harvard College Library history, this collection illustrates the professionalization of librarianship throughout the United States during the late nineteenth century, as well as aspects of women's history.


  • 1826-1914


Researcher Access

The Harvard College Library Letters are open for research. Access to fragile original documents may be restricted. Permission of the University Archives is required for photocopying or publishing.


12.43 cubic feet (108 custom boxes)
This collection documents the operation, growth, and professionalization of the Harvard College Library during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Records chiefly consist of bound scrapbooks of correspondence produced by or during the everyday functions of Harvard librarians and other library staff. Correspondence is largely between librarians, patrons who were members of the Harvard community as well as the public, library employees, university staff including Harvard presidents,and domestic and foreign book agents. Correspondence covers topics including library building conditions, especially overcrowding in Gore Hall; acquisition and collection development; library finances; new policies for patron services and library management; and reference requests. Certain volumes are labeled by library department; the establishment of departments within the library highlights a growing focus, both at Harvard and at other major libraries, on professionalizing aspects of library work. The library's focus on acquisition and international collecting is reflected in the many volumes from the Order Department, which document the process of book buying and shipping and indicate the rapid growth of the library. The focus on improving the organization of and access to these acquisitions is reflected in the establishment of the Catalog Department, and especially in discussions concerning the creation of the public subject author card catalog by Assistant Librarian Ezra Abbot.

Other records reflect the work of specific library personnel, departments, or bodies associated with the library. Volumes labeled "Archives" contain correspondence addressed to and documents produced by William Garrott Brown, the "Keeper of Archives," under librarian Justin Winsor. Including reference requests, acquisition information, and Brown's first official report with his proposed original arrangement of university collections, these volumes highlight the library's early efforts to collect and preserve university records, after an 1851 mandate by the Harvard Corporation establishing the Harvard University Archives. The work of the Harvard Corporation, the governing body charged with oversight of the library, is reflected in volumes labeled "Corporation," and contains official documentation for acknowledgement and disposition of financial gifts to the library, staffing changes, and allotment of funds. Volumes labeled "Continuation of Quinquennial Catalog" contain corrections and additions to the Quinquennial Catalogue of Harvard University, a catalogue of Harvard graduates printed every five years, and indicate that this task was the responsibility of the librarian.

In addition to documenting the Harvard College Library's history, this collection illustrates the professionalization of librarianship throughout the United States during the late nineteenth century. Records reference the establishment of library schools that regularly corresponded with the Harvard College Library, and many letters from regional and university libraries across the country request Harvard's advice and preferred library procedures, demonstrating the Harvard Library's position at the cutting edge of the field. Records also reference the development in 1876 of a librarian's professional organization-- the American Library Association (ALA)-- with Harvard librarians Justin Winsor and William Lane serving as presidents in its early years. One volume of the collection reflects that William Lane especially used his sphere of influence as Harvard librarian and ALA president when, in 1899, he spearheaded a campaign to appoint the first professional librarian, Herbert Putnam, to the position of Librarian of Congress. The position had previously been filled by politicians and journalists.

Aspects of women's history are also represented in these records. Women appear both as users of the library, as correspondence mentions visitors from the "Annex" or the "Society for the Collegiate Instruction of Women," two early names for Radcliffe College; and, beginning in 1859, as library employees. Of note are the 1864 petition of female employees for increased compensation, and the numerous letters from young women desiring work in the library, written throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, that often also reference aspects of personal and social history.

While the collection largely consists of letters written to the Harvard College Library and does not, for the most part, contain Harvard-created documents other than annotations and notes, these records reflect a new era of library work and management focused on growth and acquisition, expansion of access and use, and professionalization, coinciding with Harvard's own evolution into a global university.

Historical Note

By the early nineteenth century, the Harvard College Library had recovered from the loss of nearly 4,500 of its 5,000 volumes in the Harvard Hall fire of 1764, and had grown to house well over 12,000 volumes in the College's newly reconstructed Harvard Hall. In addition to accepting donations after the fire from benefactors such as Thomas Hollis and John Hancock, the library’s collections grew during the nineteenth century through active solicitation of material from alumni and from domestic and foreign booksellers, by librarians such as Benjamin Peirce (1826-1831), Thaddeus William Harris (1831-1856), and John Langdon Sibley (1856-1877). To further regular and more scholarly acquisitions, the Harvard Corporation (the governing body then responsible for purchasing decisions) delegated purchasing power in 1814 to a "Committee for the purchase of books" that would, by the middle of the century, come to include university and library staff and Harvard faculty. By the end of the nineteenth century, the library contained nearly 410,000 volumes, and had developed new collections in Americana, modern literature, and international works.

With the dramatic increase of the library's collections came a need for the categorization of materials and the division of labor. In 1841, Harvard's libraries consisted of the main College library, a theological library at the Divinity School, a library at the Medical School, and a library at the Law School. By the end of the century, the library network also included an anthropology library at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology (established 1866, now the Tozzer Library); numerous scientific libraries including the Lawrence Scientific School Library (established 1847, now the Gordon McKay Library), the Harvard College Observatory (established 1849, now the Wolbach Library), the Museum of Comparative Zoology Library (established 1859, now the Ernst Mayr Library), the Gray Herbarium Library (established 1864, now part of the Botany Libraries), and the Arnold Arboretum Library (established 1874); and numerous departmental libraries, including the architectural library (established 1900, now the Frances Loeb Library at the School of Design), among others. Functional departments and new staff positions within the main library were also established. In 1841, John Langdon Sibley became the first official Assistant Librarian to Thaddeus William Harris, and by 1882, there were official positions heading the newly developed departments of Cataloging, Ordering, and University Archives (established by Harvard Corporation vote in 1851), as well as a position called Superintendent of Circulation. The library also employed other staff in these departments, including women beginning in 1859.

These new libraries, library departments, and library positions followed a trend at Harvard and throughout the country in the nineteenth century towards the professionalization of librarianship. Whereas early Harvard librarians (called “library keepers” through the seventeenth century) had short tenures averaging two to three years and little responsibility beyond opening the library and maintaining its physical condition, circulating books, and compiling basic catalogues, in the mid-nineteenth century, Harvard librarians began to shape the institution's collections and services. Beginning with Thaddeus William Harris, who served from 1831 to 1856 and created the first American card catalog around 1840, librarians' terms were longer, giving them time to tackle the problem of maintaining physical and intellectual control over rapidly growing collections, and advance new procedures in cataloging and library access and use. Harris's card catalog for accessions, while used only by librarians, moved away from the difficult to update printed catalogs and supplements previously in use; the implementation of the public author and subject card catalog did as well, and also greatly improved patron access to library materials. This card catalog was developed in 1860 by Assistant Librarian Ezra Abbot, and was refined in discussion with the Library of Congress and other major libraries and librarians, including Melvil Dewey. These discussions amongst librarians throughout the country (at university, regional, and government libraries), like many in the late nineteenth century regarding collecting practices and establishing standards for library work, reflect the early spirit of access and information sharing that has come to be associated with libraries. Furthering the professionalization of librarianship was the proliferation in the late nineteenth century of library schools providing professional training, and the creation in 1876 of the American Library Association (ALA), with two Harvard librarians-- Justin Winsor and William Lane-- serving as president in its early years.

The nineteenth century was a time when library use was also broadening. Although by 1841 John Langdon Sibley had moved Harvard's steadily-increasing collection into the newly built Gore Hall (the first building at Harvard to be used solely as a library, though it, too, would quickly become overcrowded due to new acquisitions), since the seventeenth century and largely through the end of Sibley’s term in 1877, the library was mainly used by and services aimed toward graduate students and scholars. Strict regulations on the hours of the library, the amount of books allowed to be taken out, and who had borrowing and visiting privileges were enforced. Justin Winsor (1877-1897), taking over from Sibley, relaxed or eliminated some of these restrictions. Winsor opened the library stacks to all undergraduates, established a reserve system, introduced interlibrary loan, and stopped closing the library for cleaning and recalling books for the annual inventory.

After Winsor's death in 1897, William Lane (1898-1928) led the Harvard Library into the twentieth century as Harvard Librarian, along with Archibald Cary Coolidge (1910-1928), who became the first Director of the Harvard University Library in 1910. Coolidge continued his predecessors' focus on acquisition, especially of international collections. Under Coolidge, the Library acquired nearly 100,000 volumes, including significant collections from Slavic, Scandinavian, and other European countries, as well as collections from the Ottoman Empire and East Asia. With the overcrowding of Gore Hall becoming increasingly problematic, it was fortuitous that the early years of Coolidge's term coincided with the gift of a new building to house, among other collections, the library of Harry Elkins Widener (Harvard class of 1907), who had died on the Titanic. The Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library opened in 1915.


Volumes are numbered chronologically, and are intellectually arranged in eight series according to major record types:
  1. Correspondence, 1826-1906
  2. Order Department correspondence, 1881-1902
  3. Catalog Department correspondence, 1881-1905
  4. Archives correspondence, 1893-1900
  5. Staff applications, 1864-1898
  6. Visitor applications, 1879-1913
  7. Harvard Corporation papers, 1897-1914
  8. Continuation of Quinquennial Catalogues, 1895-1909

Acquisition information

The documents in this collection are University records and were presumably acquired in the course of University business.

Related Materials

Collections in the Harvard University Archives:
  1. Harvard University. Documentary history of the library, 1773-1879 (HUF 523.6.73):
  2. Harvard College Library. Early Catalogs and Shelflists of the Harvard College Library, 1723-1822 (UAIII 50.15.30):
  3. Harvard College Library. Records of the Harvard College Library: Library charging records: an inventory (UAIII 50.15.60):
  4. Harvard College Library. Records of the Harvard College Library: William Coolidge Lane general files, 1877-1929 (UAIII

Separated Materials

In the Harvard University Archives:
  1. Harvard College Library letters : supplements : letters of Justin Winsor found in books, etc. (UAIII 50.8.2)
  2. Harvard College Library letters : letters and copybooks (UAIII 5.8.5)


  • Bolton, Charles Knowles. The Harvard University Library; a sketch of its history and its benefactors, with some account of its influence through two and a half centuries. Cambridge: Graves and Henry, 1894.
  • Carpenter, Kenneth E. The First 350 Years of the Harvard University Library: Description of an Exhibition.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936.Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2019 April 09.
  1. Abbot, Ezra, 1819-1884.
  2. Brown, William Garrott, 1868-1913.
  3. Harris, Thaddeus William, 1795-1856.
  4. Lane, William Coolidge, 1859-1931.
  5. Peirce, Benjamin, 1778-1831
  6. Potter, Alfred Claghorn, 1867-1940.
  7. Sibley, John Langdon, 1804-1885.
  8. Tillinghast, William Hopkins, 1854-1913.
  9. Winsor, Justin, 1831-1897.
  1. American Library Association.
  2. Harvard College Library.
  3. Harvard University. Archives.
  4. Harvard University. Board of Overseers.
  5. Harvard University. Corporation.
  6. Library of Congress.
  1. Harvard University--Libraries.
  2. Universities and colleges--Libraries.
  3. Academic librarians.
  4. Academic libraries--Massachusetts--Cambridge.
  5. Academic libraries--Acquisitions.
  6. Academic libraries--Administration.
  7. Academic libraries--Collection development.
  8. Academic libraries--Management.
  9. Library employees.
  10. Library science.
  11. Women--Employment--United States--History--19th century.
  1. Cambridge (Mass.)
Formats and genres
  1. Scrapbooks.
  2. Correspondence.

Processing Information

The processing of this material involved a collection survey, intellectual arrangement, and the creation of this finding aid. The original order of the numbered volumes was maintained, although box numbers do not consistently match volume numbers.

This finding aid was created by Leah Edelman in December 2015.

Preservation and description of the Harvard College Library letters was supported by the Harvard Library's Hidden Collections initiative.
Link to catalog
Harvard College Library. Harvard College Library letters, 1826-1914: an inventory
Harvard University Archives

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard University Archives Repository

Holding nearly four centuries of materials, the Harvard University Archives is the principal repository for the institutional records of Harvard University and the personal archives of Harvard faculty, as well as collections related to students, alumni, Harvard-affiliates and other associated topics. The collections document the intellectual, cultural, administrative and social life of Harvard and the influence of the University as it emerged across the globe.

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