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Archives Department

Guide to the Archives Department of Boston Public Library's Special Collections

Accessing archival collections

The Special Collections Reading Room is open for appointments.

The reading room is open Wednesday - Friday 9:30 am - 4:30 pm.

To make an appointment to see archival materials in the Special Collections Reading Room, please see the Special Collections: Plan Your Research Visit website.

An ever-increasing percentage of the collections has been digitized and made freely available online. Patrons may visit the Internet Archive and Digital Commonwealth to view a portion of the Library’s special collections online.

Screen shot of Boston Public Library's page on Digitial Commonwealth.

Special Collections works with internal and external partners to increase the accessibility of our collections via digitization. Digitization involves either scanning or photographing materials at a high resolution in order to make the images available to researchers anywhere in the world. 

Digitization is generally used as a tool to increase the accessibility of library materials. Sometimes it is used as a form of preservation if materials are especially fragile and deteriorating. We are constantly striving to digitize more collections, though limits of professional staff time and the cost of digitization prevents us from digitizing everything and making it all available online.

Discovering our archival collections

Boston Public Library has been collecting archival collections since the early years of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department and archival collections are present across subject areas.

Over time additional archival collections were collected by the former Special Collections Department, the Fine Arts Department, Music Department, and Prints Department. Some of these collections have been processed and described in finding aids, some are represented by minimal records, but most are unprocessed.

In an effort to make more collections discoverable, we are in the process of adding collection descriptions to

BPL’s finding aids have evolved over time in a range of formats; we are actively working to create more complete, equitable, and accessible collection descriptions. For more information about our descriptive practices, see the Improving archival description section of this guide.

Doorways to discovery

Screenshot of online finding aid
Online finding aids

Electronic finding aids are available on Many have been transcribed from legacy paper inventories.

Bound handwritten paper finding aid
Paper finding aids

Legacy paper finding aids are available for some collections and may be requested by emailing the department:

Screenshot of MBLN online research catalog
Research catalog

Search items from archival collections held by the Rare Books & Manuscripts Department in our online catalog.

Hand pulling a card from an open card catalog draw
Catalog cards

Manuscript collections were historically described in catalog cards. Our manuscript catalog cards have been digitized and are browsable online. We are in the process of converting many of these to finding aids.

Screenshot of online search results in Digital Com
Digitized collections

Some archival collections have been digitized! Images of archival materials are available online in Digital Commonwealth.

Unprocessed mismatched folders in a box
Unprocessed collections

Many of our collections are minimally described and brief records are being added to all the time.

Search the archival collections page header
Use the search box below to search and start finding materials in our archival collections.

Search results will open in a new window.


We are adding new collections to our database all the time! Please be aware that many of our collections are only minimally described. 

Understanding copyright & archives

Archival collections have two types of rights associated with them: use and access.

  • Use rights refer to any restrictions on reproduction and publication of materials and are generally governed by copyright law.
  • Access rights are usually set by the collection's donor, though sometimes the BPL will restrict access to materials if they are too fragile for handling or contain private information such as personally identifiable information (PII) or health information.

In most cases the BPL does not hold the copyright to the items in our collections. Furthermore, we do not assert any additional restrictions on copies of these items beyond those that might exist in the original. 

As such, we cannot grant or deny permission to use copies of these items. It is the sole responsibility of the user to make their own determination about what types of usage might be permissible under U.S. and international copyright law. Provision of a copy from the BPL should not be construed as explicit permission to use it for any particular reason. 

Exceptions to copyright restrictions include:

  • Fair use. Some use cases for copyrighted materials are allowed under fair use. For more information, see the U.S. Copyright Office's Information on Fair Use
  • Public domain. Once a work's copyright term has expired it enters the public domain.  For more information, including how to calculate an item's copyright expiration, see the Cornell Library's Copyright Term and the Public Domain Public Domain.

For more information on publishing with our collections visit the Publish with Our Special Collections page on the Special Collections website.

Access rights document what portions of a collection can be made available for research and when.

Collections usually have consistent access rights statements where the collection is either completely open for research or closed until a certain date, as stipulated by the donor or the repository. These statements can also be applied to different groupings of materials based on their content.

Researchers can find guidance on each collection's accessibility in its finding aid. 

When citing materials found in BPL archival collections, please use “Boston Public Library” in the credit line to help future researchers locate the original material. 

Below are templates for citing archival collections and items held by the BPL:

  • Collection: Collection title, call number. Boston Public Library.
  • Item: Item title, date. Collection title, call number. Boston Public Library.

Email BPL's archives team with questions about citing our materials.

For more information on citing our collections visit the Publish with Our Special Collections page on the Special Collections website.

Orphan works are items for which the copyright holder cannot be determined or located.

Anyone who plans to publish or reuse materials that are in copyright, and whose use case does not meet fair-use standards, must attempt to identify and contact the copyright holder for permission to publish before using the material. If asserting that an item is an orphan work, be sure to document your efforts to find the copyright holder, in case your claim is ever challenged.

For more information and recommended guidelines on using orphan works, see the Society of American Archivists' Orphan Works: Statement of Best Practices.

Contact us & hours

Connect with BPL Archives staff!
  • Questions about archival collections?
  • Need help navigating
  • Want to help us by suggesting changes to our collection descriptions?

Reach out to BPL Archivists directly at
The Special Collections Reading Room is open for appointments.

To make an appointment to see archival materials in the Special Collections Reading Room, please see the Special Collections: Plan Your Research Visit website.

Archives Department
Boston Public Library
700 Boylston Street
Boston, Massachusetts 02116