Collections Overview

Library Collections at a Glance


About Collecting in the Harvard College Library

By Dan Hazen, Associate Librarian in the College Library for Collection Development

Harvard's collections are the product of more than three centuries of decisions encompassing every imaginable thematic interest. The contours of these collections also, inevitably, reflect an evolving understanding of what academic libraries are expected to acquire—at one point the basic books that any educated person would have at his command; more recently a broadening array of resources, in all formats, to support an inclusive community's discipline-based inquiries. Libraries at other colleges and universities have of course pursued similar goals. Harvard, however, is unique for the duration of its efforts, and also unusual in having consistently anticipated scholarly needs by documenting emerging social, intellectual, and political trends. A host of distinctive collections, and the uniquely rich sum of these parts, are a visible result.

The College Library's collections today support scholarship and teaching across the University's broad range of non-professional programs in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences, as well as an expanding set of interdisciplinary initiatives. Other libraries within the University, for example those of the Law School, the Business School, or the Medical School, address curricular and research needs in those fields.

The College Library's holdings serve three broad purposes:

  1. The collections provide exhaustive, comprehensive support for courses and programs of study within the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Items from reading lists, reserve readings, and the associated core literatures and reference works are acquired as a matter of routine.
  2. The collections aspire to comprehensive coverage of the record of scholarship, from all countries and in all relevant fields. The products of university presses, scholarly societies, professional associations, think tanks, private research centers, and many trade publishers constitute this immense and diverse corpus. These holdings provide a knowledge base for much of the research conducted within the University.
  3. The collections seek to selectively capture the overall record of human expression, across time and also across formats and media. Primary materials comprise the resource base for future scholarship. Their nature, however, has become ever more eclectic. The library has always acquired a broad representation of creative literature—novels, drama, poetry, and the like. Selective but significant arrays of local and international newspapers, and of government documents, are other enduring mainstays. Some collections of particular note have been constructed around the wholesale acquisition of private libraries. Other longstanding local collection strengths have only more recently been acknowledged within the scholarly mainstream, for example ephemera and grey literature, pamphlets, popular magazines, visual images and photographs, films and videos, manuscripts and archival collections, and sound recordings. Datasets, digital resources, and Web-based products are emerging as well.

Please contact the associated Collection Development Librarians—bibliographers and collections specialists—for additional insight and information about a collection.


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