About the Process

Colonial North America at Harvard Library is a multi-year project, still underway. The following describes the process followed to provide materials available online.

Survey: Identifying the Scope of the Resources

For centuries, Harvard has accumulated materials relating to the North American colonies. Scattered among the Harvard libraries, many of these collections remained unexamined or rarely seen by students and scholars. The first step of the ambitious task to digitize them all entailed a survey uncovering more than 1,600 collections (representing approximately 450,000 pages) in 12 Harvard repositories, including Harvard University Archives, Houghton Library, and those at the Law, Business, Medical, and Divinity schools, with two additional libraries holding materials discovered at a later date.

Ordering and Processing: Ordering and Describing the Collections

At the end of the project, all identified collections from the survey will have a descriptive catalog record in HOLLIS (Harvard Online Library Information System). Some larger collections will have an accompanying online finding aid outlining the scope of the collection, its provenance, historical context, and an inventory of its contents. The archival processing of 17th- and 18th-century materials poses a number of challenges, as the documents are old, fragile, and difficult to read. Cataloging these documents requires examining them in enough detail to be able to highlight their contents for today’s researchers and facilitate the discovery of relevant information.

Conservation: Stabilizing Materials for Digitization

Conservation, another integral step in the project, serves to stabilize materials for digitization. For example, one of the many items selected for treatment includes a map dating to 1769 from Houghton Library. Signed by its creator, Bernard Ratzer, the document outlines New Jersey and includes lines drawn in watercolor indicating borders with Pennsylvania and New York. Surveyors compiled the map in order to settle partition lines between New York and New Jersey, and the document continues to have relevance in an area where border disputes remain to this day. The map consists of six sheets of overlapping paper backed with linen. To stabilize the map, conservators unrolled, humidified, flattened, and reinforced tears so that it could be safely handled. The map is now housed in a custom box and available for viewing online in its entirety.

Digitization: Making the Collections Available Online

Digital images will accompany all Colonial North American records in online library catalogs. A team of conservation and imaging specialists assesses and places materials into the appropriate workflow for the type and condition of material. Workflows for handling and photography are designed to be as efficient and cost-effective as possible while ensuring the creation of high-quality images and protecting the integrity of the physical material. Following digitization, images were deposited into Harvard’s Digital Repository Service for long-term storage and linked to online library catalogs.

The Future: CNA at Harvard and Beyond

Out of Harvard’s 1,600 identified North American collections relating to the colonial era, approximately 99% have been digitized, while the rest still require basic processing, stabilization, and digitization. Due to decisions during the processing step and materials being added to the Harvard Library holdings, the project now encompasses over 1,900 collections. At the end of the project, students and scholars at Harvard and across the world will be able to call up all CNA collections in HOLLIS by simply entering the "Colonial North America" series title. The initiative and streamlined workflows developed for processing a large number of items have also provided a model for future digitization projects at the University. Those involved with the project are discussing possible ways to work with partners at other repositories in New England, Canada, and elsewhere to further broaden access to digitized manuscripts and archives related to the Atlantic world of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Building this Site

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. To learn more about what makes the presentation of material on this site unique, visit Understanding My Search Results.