Early Catalogs and Shelflists of the Harvard College Library
This collection of early catalogs and shelflists of the Harvard College Library includes both printed and manuscript material. It contains at least one copy of each of the three printed library catalogs published in the eighteenth century, with related supplements; two sets of library alcove shelflists; numerous manuscript catalogs of the library, arranged either alphabetically or by subject, including one believed to have been in use during the College's evacuation to Concord during the American Revolutionary War; and multiple "tracts catalogs," which listed pamphlets in the library's collection before they were integrated into the general catalog.
- Harvard College Library (Organization)
The Early Catalogs and Shelflists of the Harvard College Library are open for research.
Copying of fragile materials may be limited.
Extent4.77 cubic feet (1.5 legal document boxes, 5 flat boxes, 16 volumes and 1 microfilm box)
This collection of early catalogs and shelflists of the Harvard College Library includes both printed and manuscript material. It contains at least one copy of each of the three printed library catalogs published in the eighteenth century, with related supplements; two sets of library alcove shelflists; numerous manuscript catalogs of the library, primarily arranged either alphabetically or by subject, including one believed to have been in use during the College's evacuation to Concord during the American Revolutionary War; and multiple "tracts catalogs," which listed pamphlets in the library's collection before they were integrated into the general catalog.
Early history of the Harvard College Library
The origins of the Harvard College Library can be traced to the College's namesake, John Harvard. Following his death from tuberculosis on September 14, 1638, Harvard's library of four hundred volumes, along with half of his estate, was given to the newly-established college subsequently named in his honor. These books were the College's first library collection. By 1642 the library was housed in what was known as the Old College building, where Grays Hall now stands, which was described as "having in it a spacious Hall (where they meet daily at Commons, Lectures, Exercises), and a large Library with some Bookes to it, the gifts of divers of our friends." The library was located on the second floor, in the southeast chamber. In the summer of 1676, the library was moved to the so-called New College and housed in Harvard Hall, where it would remain until that building was destroyed by fire almost a century later (see below). The library collection continued to grow in its new home, holding approximately 3,500 volumes by the time the first printed catalog was produced in 1723, and an additional 600 volumes by the time a second supplement to that first catalog was printed in 1735. By the time of the fire in 1764, the library contained over 5,000 volumes.
On the night of January 24, 1764, Harvard Hall (sometimes referred to as "Old Harvard Hall," as another building named Harvard Hall was later built) burned to the ground, destroying all of the volumes in the library except for the approximate 400 which were then out on loan and another 100 or so books which had been received but were not yet unpacked and shelved. This fire took place during the College's winter vacation, while the Massachusetts General Court was temporarily holding session in the building due to a smallpox epidemic in Boston. Apparently a fire was left burning in the library's fireplace and spread to the floor beams, quickly destroying the entire building and its contents. The General Court took responsibility for the loss of the building and agreed to pay for its replacement. The burning of the library prompted an immediate and tremendous outpouring of generosity from myriad other sources, which included both financial donations and thousands of new books. By the time a new home for the library - Harvard Hall - was completed in 1766, the size of the library collection had surpassed what it was before the fire just two years earlier.
The library was located in the upper west chamber of the new Harvard Hall, with books arranged on shelves within alcoves. Some of these alcoves were designated to hold the volumes donated by specific benefactors, including Thomas Hollis, John Hancock, the Province of New Hampshire (whose General Assembly voted to donate £300 previously allocated for the creation of New Hampshire's own university to Harvard instead), the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England, Lieutenant Governor William Dummer, Harvard Treasurer Thomas Hubbard, Jasper Mauduit, and Thomas Wibird. There were initially ten alcoves in the library, though that number increased as the collection grew. By 1790, when the third printed catalog was published, the library contained over 12,000 volumes. The library remained in Harvard Hall into the nineteenth century, expanding to comprise the entire second floor in 1815 when commons and recitation were moved to the newly completed University Hall.
The catalogs, shelflists, and other materials in this collection represent Harvard librarians' ongoing efforts to maintain physical and intellectual control over a rapidly growing collection at a time when there were no established standards for cataloging and no professional training to help them with their task. Annotations and corrections to the catalogs (manuscript and printed) demonstrate that these were active records, continually used to track deletions and additions to the library's holdings. As the collection grew, problems of storage and cataloging became increasingly complex. The short duration of most librarians' tenure - very often only one or two years - certainly also contributed to difficulties in organizing, cataloging, and locating the volumes in a consistent and accurate manner.
This collection contains at least one copy of each of the three printed catalogs of the Harvard College Library produced in the eighteenth century: that of 1723 (with its printed supplements from 1725 and 1735), that of 1773, and that of 1790. It also contains alcove lists, which list the titles found on each shelf in each alcove; manuscript catalogs, arranged either alphabetically or by subject; and catalogs listing pamphlets, then known as "tracts," in the library collections. These materials provide insight not only into the contents of the library at any given time, but also into the challenges of arranging and describing those contents in a way that provided sufficient and efficient access to users.
Many of the catalogs and shelflists in this collection include shelf locations for some or all of the volumes listed. For example, a shelf location of 4.3.12 would indicate that a volume was located on the fourth bookcase, on the third shelf from the bottom (shelves were numbered from lowest to highest), and in the twelfth location on that shelf. Some shelf locations begin with a fourth number, which indicates the alcove within which the shelf was located. The last element of the shelf number was often written on the fore-edge of a book, which indicates that books were - at least in the library's earliest years - shelved with their spines inward. The shelf marks were also written, often in ink, on the flyleaf or title page of the volumes.
The following is a list of the individuals who served as Librarian in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The librarian was often a recent graduate, junior fellow, College tutor, or resident bachelor. In addition to the care and circulation of books, the librarian was responsible for the care of benefactors' portraits, marble and plaster busts of writers and classical subjects, and the so-called philosophical apparatus (scientific equipment) housed within the library. No salary was paid to those who held the position prior to 1693.
Harvard Librarians, 1667-1800
- Solomon Stoddard
- Samuel Sewall
- Daniel Gookin
- Daniel Allin
- Daniel Gookin
- John Cotton
- Henry Newman
- Ebenezer Pemberton
- Nathaniel Saltonstall
- Anthony Stoddard
- Josiah Willard
- John Whiting
- John Gore
- Nathaniel Gookin
- Edward Holyoke
- Thomas Robie
- John Denison
- John Rogers
- William Welsteed
- William Cooke
- Joshua Gee
- Mitchell Sewall
- John Hancock
- Stephen Sewall
- Joseph Champney
- Joseph Pynchon
- Henry Gibbs
- Samuel Coolidge
- James Diman
- Samuel Cooke
- Thomas Marsh
- Belcher Hancock
- Benjamin Prat
- Matthew Cushing
- Oliver Peabody
- Stephen Badger
- John Rand
- Mather Byles
- Elizur Holyoke
- Edward Brooks
- Samuel Deane
- Stephen Sewall
- Andrew Eliot
- Jonathan Moore
- Nathaniel Ward
- Caleb Prentice
- William Mayhew
- James Winthrop
- July 19-September 24, 1787
- Thaddeus Mason Harris (interim librarian)
- Isaac Smith
- Thaddeus Mason Harris
- Samuel Shapleigh
The collection is arranged in rough chronological order, within which it is divided into subseries reflecting the intellectual and physical organization of the library at various points in time. It should be noted that many of the materials in this collection were in active use over the course of multiple decades, and thus cover a wide and sometimes indeterminable span of years. Because of this, precise chronological order is not entirely possible.
The Early Catalogs and Shelflists of the Harvard College Library are arranged in the following subseries:
- First printed catalog and supplements, 1723-1735
- Alphabetical catalogs, 1765-circa 1784
- First Alcove shelflists, 1765-1795
- Second printed catalog, 1773
- Tracts catalogs, 1773-1790
- Subject catalogs (includes third printed catalog), 1789-1822
- Revised Alcove shelflists, 1795-1820
- Miscellaneous catalogs, 
Most of the materials in this collection are University records and were acquired in the course of University business. Several of the printed catalogs were received as gifts or exchanges; this provenance information is noted at the item level in this finding aid.
Some of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.
- New Englands First Fruits; in respect, first of the conversion of some, conviction of divers, preparation of sundry of the Indians. 2. Of the progresse of learning, in the Colledge at Cambridge in Massacusets Bay. With divers other speciall matters concerning the Countrey. London, printed by R. O. and G. D. for Henry Overton, 1643.
- Bond, W. H. and Hugh Amory, eds. The Printed Catalogues of the Harvard College Library, 1723-1790. Boston: The Colonial Society of Massachusetts, 1996.
- "History of the Library." In The Library of Harvard University: Descriptive and Historical Notes, 4th ed., 12-35. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1934.
- Carpenter, Kenneth E. The First 350 Years of the Harvard University Library: Description of an Exhibition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1986.
- Harvard Library Notes. No. 29, March 1939. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1939.
- Morison, Samuel Eliot. Three Centuries of Harvard, 1636-1936. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1936.
This document last updated 2019 February 19.
The materials in this collection were first classified and described in the Harvard University Archives shelflist prior to 1980. They were united to form a single collection in 2010; this involved a collection survey, re-housing in appropriate archival folders and boxes, a revised arrangement, and the creation of this finding aid.
This finding aid was created by Laura Morris in October 2010.
Preservation and description of the Early Catalogs and Shelflists of the Harvard College Library was supported by the Arcadia-funded project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
- Harvard College Library. Early Catalogs and Shelflists of the Harvard College Library, 1723-1822: an inventory
- Harvard University Archives
- Language of description
- EAD ID
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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