TOPICS > Education

Vast digitizing project will put Harvard’s colonial archives online

January 31, 2016 at 2:26 PM EDT
Harvard University has launched a project to digitize almost half a million items from its 17th and 18th century archives – the largest digitizing effort the university has ever undertaken. The letters, journals, documents and drawings tell the story not only of the nation’s oldest institution of higher learning, but also the history of our nation.

MEGAN THOMPSON: For hundreds of years viewing items in Harvard University’s archives required that you show up in person at one of the school’s libraries.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Harvard Archivist Megan Sniffin-Marinoff is leading a project to change that. The “Colonial North American Project” — will digitize almost half-a-million items and make them available online.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: Our sense was that we had something unique here that might not have been a part of the larger story of Colonial North America before.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The project’s focus – materials from the 16- and 17-hundreds.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: Much of this material, we think, has never really been used. Or used heavily. And so, the purpose of our project is really to kind of open it all up. To allow people to use it.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The collection holds everything from diaries and letters — to drawings and documents.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: This is one of the earliest items that we’ve digitized thus far. It’s called College Book 1.

MEGAN THOMPSON: It’s a ledger from the 1600’s that kept track of life at Harvard. Small details, like a list of utensils in the school’s kitchen.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: Barrels, frying pans, skillets….

MEGAN THOMPSON: And evidence of controversial treatment of Native Americans. This entry is from 1665.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: And what we notice in 1665 is the name written in, “Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck.” The first Native American to graduate from Harvard. This was as you know, a big part of the charge of the institution, mission of the institution, initially to convert the Native Americans over to Christianity.

MEGAN THOMPSON: The collection also contains a small globe from around 1755.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: You get a sense of the obviously, the world at that time. If you look, for example, at Australia, you will see it listed as New Holland.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Some items belonged to important American revolutionaries. Declaration of Independence signer John Hancock went to Harvard in the 1750’s.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: The first is a letter that he wrote to his sister in 1754.

MEGAN THOMPSON: Hancock was apparently annoyed his sister hadn’t written to him.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: “Dear Sister. I believe time slips away very easy with you. I wish you would spend one hour in writing to me. PS: I give you much joy, but will have even more reason to so after receiving a letter from you.”

MEGAN THOMPSON: In this 1773 letter, Hancock accepts his appointment as Harvard’s treasurer.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: You start to see as a student the evolution of the John Hancock signature. And you see it in the 1750s and then. When we move over to 1773. We get the more familiar John Hancock signature.

MEGAN THOMPSON: There are the diaries of math and science professor John Winthrop – a descendant of the John Winthrop who was the first Governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. He took detailed meteorological notes about things like wind and snowfall.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: This material is fascinating. It’s some of the earliest weather information that we have in the country.

MEGAN THOMPSON: As the colonies headed toward revolution, Winthrop began to write about more serious events. In 1770 British soldiers fired on an unruly crowd of colonists, an event later known as the Boston Massacre.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: “1770, 5th March, eve. A most shocking massacre in Boston. A party of seven soldiers, under the command of one Captain Preston, being pelted with snowballs, fired upon the people in King Street. Killed three on the spot. Wounded seven others, one of whom died next day, another on the 15th of March.”

MEGAN THOMPSON: Winthrop also recorded one of the Revolutionary War’s first battles, at Bunker Hill in Boston where British soldiers defeated colonial forces.

MEGAN SNIFFIN-MARINOFF: And you see on his listing for June 7 the Battle of Bunker Hill. And on the 21st of June as well, you see the selection of counselors at Concord happening. So there is this progression of the American Revolution happening that is absolutely forming the backdrop of this daily diaries.

MEGAN THOMPSON: An eyewitness to an extraordinary time. Harvard’s already completed about a third of a project, and plans to finish the rest over the next few years.