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COLLECTION Identifier: UAIII 50.27.64

Records of books spared from 1764 Harvard Hall fire and subsequent gifts


On the night of January 24, 1764, a devastating fire destroyed Harvard Hall, and with it Harvard College's collection of scientific instruments ("philosophical apparatus") and most of the books in its library. In the aftermath of the fire, librarians compiled lists of books which were in circulation and thus spared from the fire. They also kept lists of the many gifts and benefactions, large and small, which poured in from individuals and organizations to assist in the rebuilding of the library collections and scientific apparatus. This collection contains those lists of spared books and lists of gifts and benefactions.


  • 1764-1778


Researcher Access

The records of books spared from 1764 Harvard Hall fire and subsequent gifts are open for research.

Copying Restriction

Copying of fragile materials may be limited.


.65 cubic feet (1 document box and 1 flat box)
This collection contains two types of lists created in the aftermath of the 1764 fire which destroyed Harvard Hall, and with it Harvard College's collection of scientific instruments ("philosophical apparatus") and most of its library books. The first series contains lists of books which were in circulation, and thus spared from the fire. These lists, organized according to the patrons who had checked out library books, provide information about what books various individuals were reading. The second series contains lists of the many gifts and benefactions which were made to replace the library books and scientific apparatus. These lists include the titles of donated books as well as the amount of actual and promised financial gifts.

Historical Note: Harvard College Library and the fire of 1764

The origins of the Harvard College Library can be traced to the College's namesake, John Harvard. Following his death of 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. 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," since 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, and 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 V, 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 collection is arranged in two series. Items within each series are arranged chronologically, when their date is known. Items with unknown dates are located at the end of the series.
  1. Lists of books spared from the fire, ca. 1764
  2. Records of gifts and donations made after the fire, 1764-1778

Former call number

A portion of this collection formerly classified as UAIII Notes on books that were in the Library before the fire, These notes, which appear to be 20th century research notes, are of an unknown provenance and are largely illegible. They have been added to the control file for the collection and may be consulted on request.

Acquisition information

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

Online access

All of the records have been digitized and are available online. Links accompany detailed descriptions.

Related Materials

In the Harvard University Archives


  • An Account of the fire at Harvard-College, in Cambridge; with the loss sustained thereby. Boston: Printed by R. and S. Draper, 1764.
  • 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.

Inventory update

This document last updated 2019 January 24.

Processing Information

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 2011; 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 January 2011.

Preservation and description of the records of books spared from 1764 fire and subsequent gifts was supported by the Arcadia-funded project project Harvard in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.
Link to catalog
Harvard College Library. Records of books spared from 1764 Harvard Hall fire and subsequent gifts, 1764-1778: an inventory

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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