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Scope and Content

A Foreword from Robert Darnton

Although reading happens everywhere, we don't know what it is when it takes place under our nose. How do we make sense of typographical marks embedded on a page? How did other people in other times and places decipher signs in other languages? The process of reading lies at the heart of our most intensely human activity, the making of meaning, and therefore deserves study as a crucial element in all civilizations, even those without modern means of communication, where natives learn to read footprints in the sand and clouds in the sky as meaningful portents. Curiously, however, the study of reading has only recently become part of the larger effort to interpret cultural systems. Why this neglect? In part because we are so familiar with reading that we fail to see its problematic character, in part because we have not located sources for systematic research. The source material abounds, but it must be quarried out of locations that are inaccessible to most people—manuscript diaries, commonplace books, correspondence, instruction manuals, library records, fictitious and graphic representations. By assembling evidence from a wide variety of its holdings, the Harvard University Library intends to make this exciting field of study accessible to everyone, everywhere. Beginning students can explore different aspects of it, and advanced researchers can pursue primary material in highly specialized areas. By opening its holdings to the general public in this digital collection as in the earlier projects of its Open Collections Program, Harvard hopes to promote the cause of open access in general.

Robert Darnton,
Carl H. Pforzheimer University Professor
and Director of the University Library


Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History is an online exploration of the intellectual, cultural, and political history of reading as reflected in the historical holdings of the Harvard Libraries. For Internet users worldwide, Reading provides unparalleled digital access to a significant selection of unique source materials—more than 250,000 pages from 1,200 individual items, including 800 published books and 400 manuscript selections.

Reading offers highly selective views from the Harvard library collections on reading as an acquired skill, as a social activity, and as a valued and highly engaging individual act. The materials digitized for Reading are drawn from holdings of the Harvard University Archives; Houghton Library and the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library; the Monroe C. Gutman Library of the Harvard Graduate School of Education; and the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.


Materials in the Reading collection are chosen to increase the availability and use of Harvard’s historical resources for teaching and research. The online collection does not, however, aggregate everything available at Harvard on the broad topics of reading, readership, reading history, or reading instruction

The selections include printed books, especially historical textbooks, such as primers, spellers, and readers; library records, largely related to the Harvard collections; documentation in published as well as manuscript form on reading clubs and associations in the US and Great Britain; commonplace books and related items, such as diaries and scrapbooks; and highly significant holdings from Houghton Library that include personally annotated books owned by John Keats, Herman Melville, Hester Lynch Piozzi, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Thomas Carlyle, and William James.

Items digitized and included in Reading are in the public domain.

Manuscript Materials and Published Texts

Many manuscript materials are handwritten and not generally convertible to searchable text by optical character recognition (OCR). They therefore are not full-text searchable. While manuscript materials may be included in library catalogs such as HOLLIS, manuscript repositories often rely on separate finding aids to guide users who are interested in these materials. Where possible and appropriate, the Open Collections Program provides links to finding aids at Harvard. To view Harvard finding aids online, visit the OASIS catalog.

Published texts are generally searchable in full text.


Selections are primarily in English, but several other languages, including French, German, Italian, Spanish, and Latin, are represented in the Reading collection.

Notes on Contributing Repositories and Collections

Gutman Library Historical Textbooks Collection
Special collections in the Monroe C. Gutman Library include the Historical Textbooks Collection (HTC). The HTC encompasses approximately 35,000 secondary and college textbooks in all subject areas. The collection concentrates on materials published between 1800 and 1950, though there are a few pre-1800 items. Most of the textbooks are American imprints, but a representative collection of European imprints is included. The collection is particularly strong in the areas of reading, history and geography, languages, mathematics, and science, and covers all subjects taught in schools from agriculture to zoology.

Harvard University Archives
The Harvard University Archives collects University records of permanent historical value and other historical materials related to the life of the University regardless of format. The Archives collects published and unpublished materials that document all aspects of the Harvard community, including events, buildings and the physical campus, student life (both academic and extracurricular), faculty life (including personal papers and course materials), music, religion, and sports.

For Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History, library records—primarily those of the Harvard College Library—are drawn from the holdings of the Harvard University Archives.

Materials from the Phi Beta Kappa library and materials related to the Harvard Classics series created by Harvard President Charles W. Eliot are not represented.

Houghton Library: Collections of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions
Houghton Library holds the collections of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM). Of those holdings, Reading includes a small selection of three boxes of ABCFM items related to the organization’s missions to the Dakota tribe.

ABCFM was founded in 1810 as the first organized missionary society in the United States. Missions to Native America began in 1817 with a mission station in Brainerd, Tennessee, to serve the Cherokees. Other tribes were added to the Board’s deployment up to 1836, but the work met many obstacles, including the dispersal of tribes by the US government, and the Civil War put an end to almost all mission activity.

ABCFM records on missions to India, Ceylon, West Central Africa (Angola), South Africa and Rhodesia, Asiatic and European Turkey, four different regions in China, Japan, Micronesia, the Philippines, and the "Papal lands" of Mexico, Spain and Austria are not represented in Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History. Records related to Native American tribes other than the Dakota tribe are also not represented.

Houghton Library: The Donald and Mary Hyde Collection of Dr. Samuel Johnson
Houghton Library’s Hyde Collection contains copies of virtually all of Samuel Johnson’s published works, more than half of his surviving letters, authorial manuscripts, works of art, and personal artifacts. It likewise documents the life and work of many of Johnson’s friends, particularly James Boswell and Hester Lynch Piozzi. The Hyde Collection holds dozens of books from Piozzi’s library, many extensively annotated. "I have a Trick of writing in the Margins of my Books," Piozzi wrote in her diary. "It is not a good Trick, but one longs to say something." Only a narrow sampling on the Hyde Collection appears in Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History.

Houghton Library: Modern Books and Manuscripts
The Houghton Library Modern Books and Manuscripts Collection encompasses materials in all formats dating from 1800 to the present. The department has responsibility for approximately 9.5 million manuscripts and 250,000 rare books and serials, many with important associations, plus substantial numbers of printed ephemera, photographs, drawings, paintings, and objects. While the focus of the collection is on the literature and history of Europe and the Americas, it also includes large holdings of Arabic, Indic, and Syriac manuscripts. (The corresponding printed collections are largely held at Widener Library.) In addition to general strengths in American and European literature and history, there are concentrations in British, French, German, Latin American, Modern Greek, Russian, and Scandinavian literature; the history of missions, particularly those of the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions; the Russian Revolution; publishing history; music; and philosophy.

Schlesinger Library
Radcliffe’s Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America documents women’s lives and endeavors from the early 19th century to the present day. In addition to books, periodicals, photographs, and audiovisual materials, the holdings include approximately 2,500 manuscript collections from individuals, families, and organizations.

Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History draws on only a small number these manuscripts that are related to travel, life writing, and women’s associations.

Widener Library
Harvard’s Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library holds one of the world’s most comprehensive research collections in the humanities and social sciences. These remarkably diverse collections of books, journals, microforms, films, pamphlets, posters, audio recordings, electronic resources, and ephemera numbering in the millions are the result of deliberate, systematic, forward-looking acquisitions amassed over hundreds of years, a process that today remains a vital part of the library’s mission.

The humanities and social sciences collections of the Widener Library are represented by distinguished holdings in the history, literature, public affairs, and cultures of five continents. Of particular note are the collections of Africana, Americana, European local history, Judaica, Latin American studies, Middle Eastern studies, Slavic studies, and rich collections of materials for the study of Asia, the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, France, Germany, Italy, Scandinavia, and Greek and Latin antiquity. These collections include significant holdings in linguistics, ancient and modern languages, folklore, economics, history of science and technology, philosophy, psychology, and sociology. The holdings include major research materials in more than 100 languages collected from virtually every country in the world.

Reading selections are drawn from Widener materials related to bibliography and best books literature, library history, and reading instruction.

Digitization Standards and Practices

Project cataloging and descriptive metadata practices are designed to promote discovery of digitized items in the environments that students, teachers, and researchers use. OCP applies community standards for bibliographic description, assigns persistent links to digital objects, and stores metadata in centrally supported library systems using open protocols (MODS, OAI-PMH) to facilitate discovery in major Internet search engines, as well as in library catalogs and project databases for OCP web sites.

When supported by optical character recognition (OCR) software, machine-printed texts in a variety of languages are digitized to facilitate full-text as well as catalog searching. OCR-generated texts are not corrected to be 100% accurate transcriptions of all characters in the original materials.

Digital imaging and structural metadata practices have evolved with technologies and institutional expertise—primarily in HCL Imaging Services—to produce complete, legible, navigable, citable, and portable electronic reproductions delivered by the centrally managed delivery systems of the Harvard University Library’s Office for Information Systems. Digitization processes and practices for materials preparation and quality control balance mandates for safe handling, high rates of throughput, and affordability.