About

Colonial North America at Harvard Library provides access to digitized manuscripts and archives documenting a wide range of topics related to 17th- and 18th-century North America. These documents — written by the famous and the infamous, the well-known and unknown — reveal a great deal about the changing Atlantic world over two centuries.

The digitized materials provide insights through the eyes of people who not only wrote about revolution and politics but also about topics such as education, trade, finance, law, science, medicine, religion, family affairs and social life, women, Native Americans, slavery, food and agriculture. Many of the documents contain visual materials, such as drawings, sketches, maps, and other illustrations. In addition to reflecting the origins of the United States, the digitized materials also document aspects of life and work in geographical areas such as Great Britain, France, the Mediterranean coast, Canada, the Caribbean, and Mexico. “Colonial North America” is a term used loosely for this collection, with manuscript and archival collections naturally and inherently crossing the boundaries of identified time frames.

About Our Donors

Thanks to generous support from Arcadia, The Polonsky Foundation, James B. Adler through the Adler Preservation Fund, and Peter H. Darrow and William O. Nutting through a fund for the Colonial North America ("CNA") Digitization Project at the Harvard Library, The Colonial North America Project at Harvard University is making freely available online digitized images of Harvard Library’s vast archival and manuscript holdings—from business ledgers to student notebooks to personal diaries—that shed light on 17th- and 18th-century North American life. Now, anyone anywhere in the world can page through the notes and correspondence of key leaders in the founding of American democracy, such as Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, John Hancock, and John Adams. Opening up these collections provides a new way of understanding these historic figures and the lives they led during this turbulent time in American history.

Arcadia Fund

Arcadia Fund

Arcadia supports charities and scholarly institutions that preserve cultural heritage and the environment. The Fund supports digital documentation of near-extinct languages, endangered historical archives and artefacts, and endangered cultural practices.

The Polonsky Foundation

The Polonsky Foundation

The primary objectives of the Foundation are: to promote access to and dissemination of cultural heritage through support of major cultural and educational institutions; to support scholarship and advanced studies in the humanities and social sciences; and to support innovation in higher education and the arts.

About the Repositories

Unique and unpublished materials previously available physically at 14 repositories are being digitized using the highest standards and are united for the first time. The materials are drawn from the special collections and archives at:

  • Andover-Harvard Theological Library (Harvard Divinity School)
  • Baker Library (Harvard Business School)
  • Botany/Gray Herbarium Library (Faculty of Arts and Sciences)
  • Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (Faculty of Arts and Sciences)
  • Countway Library of Medicine (Harvard Medical School)
  • Monroe C. Gutman Library (Harvard Graduate School of Education)
  • Houghton Library (Harvard College Library)
  • Harvard Law School Library (Harvard Law School)
  • Harvard Map Collection (Harvard College Library)
  • Harvard University Archives (Harvard Library)
  • Loeb Music Library (Harvard College Library)
  • Ernst Mayr Library of the Museum of Comparative Zoology (Faculty of Arts and Sciences)
  • Schlesinger Library (Radcliffe Institute)
  • Tozzer Library (Harvard College Library)

For further information characterizing many of the institutional collections, see descriptions on the Browse page.

Get in Touch

Are you having technical difficulties? Do you have an idea you would like to share? Did you spot an error on the website? Do you have a question about citing the material? Would you like more detail about an item in the collection?

Please contact us here with any questions you have, and we will get back to you as soon as possible.

Understanding My Search Results

Colonial North America at Harvard Library is notable not only for the vastness and originality of its content, but also the scale and function of its platform. While the number and sophistication of digital collections has been growing rapidly in recent years, they have all been constrained in their presentation by the metadata requirements underlying the display.

Since Colonial North America at Harvard Library represents the work of hundreds of archivists, catalogers, digitization experts, librarians, and scholars at more than a dozen different repositories, spanning decades of Harvard’s history, collection-level records represent a rich body of context for users that have not been successfully mined for their data points until now. The diversity of archival processing techniques represented in Colonial North America at Harvard Library brings a richness to this broader collection of material, but also presents a challenge in building a platform that fully represents the material in digital form.

In order to experience the richness of these archival collections we must expose not only individual digital items, but also the carefully-crafted, contextual materials that connect those items across repository, provenance, subject matter, date range, or format. This platform represents a unique undertaking to surface what archivists and librarians refer to as “collection-level records” alongside individual “item-level records.”

collection-level record icon

You will find collection-level records and item-level records mixed together in your search results in order to surface context along with content. Collection-level records are indicated by a generic thumbnail featuring three manuscript pages and a plus sign indicating there is more to be found.

item-level record example

Item-level records, by contrast, will display a thumbnail of the individual item or a single manuscript page placeholder if not thumbnail is available. In rare cases, a “collection-level record” may represent an individual archival item either because only one item in the collection has been digitized to date or because an individual item was treated as a collection consistent with changes in archival practices over time. Representing these diverse and meaningful archival processing techniques in digital form, and on this scale, allows Colonial North America at Harvard Library to make these unique and unpublished materials, truly accessible to the world.

About the Process

Colonial North America at Harvard Library is a multi-year project, still underway. For more information about the process followed to provide materials available online, visit our About the Process page.