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Rare Books and Manuscripts Department


What is a manuscript?

A manuscript is a handwritten document (manu=hand; script=writing).

Manuscripts can take many forms, from letters, to receipts, to diaries, to drafts of literary works, and beyond. If it is written by hand, it is a manuscript. 

In the Rare Books and Manuscripts department, we take an even wider view. When classifying our collections, we consider almost anything that is not published to be a manuscript.

BPL manuscript collections contain postcards, photocopies, archives (which often include printed matter), scrapbooks, photo albums; government, business, and organizational records; hand-drawn maps, surveys, original works of art, printed forms filled out by hand, and many other kinds of materials.

Finding manuscripts

There are three main ways to find manuscripts held in the BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department:

  • Online catalogs are databases that provide detailed descriptions of many individual manuscripts and basic descriptions of manuscript collections
  • Card catalogs provide basic information about almost all manuscripts, manuscript collections, and archives 
  • Findings aids provide access to structured descriptions of certain collections of manuscripts and archives

Each of these resources provide information about manuscripts in different ways. To learn more about online catalogs and card catalogs, scroll down. To learn more bout finding aids see the menu on the left.

(Image) A Harvard student's handwritten copy of Judah Monis' then-unpublished Hebrew grammar, created in 1722 (MS q Am.1607)

BPL has two online catalogs. You can access the same records through both, but the search and display features of each catalog work differently. The better you understand how each catalog works, the more likely you are to find what you are looking for.


Regardless of which catalog you use, it is important to remember that the manuscript card catalog (see menu on the left) still contains the fullest and most accurate list of the library's holdings.

The research catalog is an excellent option when trying to find manuscripts without knowing the exact details of what you are looking for. For example, if you plan to use keyword searches to locate relevant materials, the research catalog is ideal.

  • A simple keyword search can give you a general idea of the manuscripts you might be interested in
  • An advanced search is a more targeted way to find specific manuscript material in the research catalog

Keyword searching

A keyword search will look for manuscript catalog records that contain a specified word or group of words. If you want to search by keyword, it is a good idea to include the word "manuscripts" so that you will narrow down the number of relevant results.

For example, if you want to get a quick idea about the number of manuscripts in the BPL online catalog relating to Newburyport, Massachusetts, you might enter the words "Newburyport" and "manuscripts," as in the image above.


Keyword searches will return a lot of results, often including records for materials you will not be interested in. You can click on each title in the list for the full details. The search pictured in the image above returned all records where the words "Newburyport" and "manuscripts" both appear (click the image to view the search results).


The blue arrows above show some of the many areas where you can make adjustments for easier browsing. You can:

  • Filter by material type by selecting the options on the left side of the screen
  • Set the number of results to display on each page
  • Sort your results by relevance, date, title, author, and other criteria, with the pull-down menu on the right


Advanced search

Advanced search allows you to be very specific about what you are looking for, because it provides several options for narrowing your results.

When performing an advanced search for manuscripts, it is always a good idea to set the first search option to genre: manuscripts. This will assure that your search results will be for manuscripts only. With genre set to manuscripts, use any of the additional options to search for keywords, author names, titles, etc. 

Advanced search using two options: genre and keywords

To perform an advanced search for all manuscripts related to Newburyport, Massachusetts, search for genre: manuscripts and any field: Newburyport (in the research catalog, "any field" means the same thing as a "keyword").


Note that 87 results are returned with this advanced search, as opposed to 99 results for the simple keyword search at the top of this page.

Advanced search using three options: genre, keywords, and author

To perform an advanced search for all manuscripts related to Newburyport, Massachusetts, by authors named "Gould," search for genre: manuscripts AND any field: Newburyport, AND author: Gould. The results, shown above, have now been greatly narrowed down to just five records.

The catalog is easy to find - it's the search bar that runs across the top of the library's website, Every page on has the catalog on the top of the page, so you can find it no matter where you are on library website.

For detailed instructions on using the catalog, consult the research guide Using the library catalog.

The interface and some of the functions are different in the catalog. In particular, descriptive notes within catalog records -- in other words, descriptions that are neither part of the title, nor publication info -- do not display by default and are not readily retrievable through searches. For this reason, we strongly recommend that you use the research catalog.

Card Catalogs

A row of drawers in the Rare Books Dept. manuscript card catalog, with one drawer partially openMost of the manuscripts in the BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department are listed in the department’s card catalogs.

A card catalog is a set of index cards used to store information about a collection. In a typical card catalog, each individual card describes a separate item. The Rare Books and Manuscripts Department maintains two separate card catalogs. One contains descriptions of printed materials; the other contains descriptions of manuscripts.

Each card catalog is accompanied by two additional sets of catalog cards: a "geographic file," in which descriptions of materials are organized by place, and a chronological file, in which they are organized by date.

Card catalogs in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department can be accessed in person or online, through this guide.

More about the card catalog for manuscripts

The card catalog is the best place to search for manuscripts. It contains over 130,000 cards, filed in alphabetical order by author name. Where no author is known, cards are filed alphabetically by title. Manuscripts related to certain special subjects, like “abolitionism,” or “music” are filed under author's name, as well as subject.

The card catalog is fully cross-referenced, meaning that multiple cards, each describing the same manuscript, can be filed in several different places. For instance, cards describing a single letter from Jane Doe to John Smith, about an event during the American Civil War, might be filed under Doe, Jane, under Smith, John, and under United States--History--Civil War.

Geographic file

The geographic file lists manuscripts alphabetically by place of creation, rather than by author or subject. 

Chronological file

The chronological file lists manuscripts by date only, from oldest to newest.

The card catalog for manuscripts fills 123 drawers and contains over 130,000 individual catalog cards. 

Cards in the catalog are organized alphabetically by author. When no author is known, cards are organized by title.

Each of the links below leads to a digitized copy of one whole drawer of cards. Scroll through the list and click on the links to browse.

To carry out a limited keyword search, see the tab above.


Browse catalog cards (manuscripts)

Drawer 1. A-Adams, John

Drawer 2. Adams, John Q.-Almade

Drawer 3. Almanac-Anthony

Drawer 4. Antibe-Arouste

Drawer 5. Art-Au Young

Drawer 6. Averbury-Banlieu

Drawer 7. Banneker-Bartley

Drawer 8. Bartok-Beex

Drawer 9. Begi-Bezandin

Drawer 10. Biagiotti-Blydenburgh

Drawer 11. Board of War-Bostick

Drawer 12. Boston, Thomas-Boston Latin

Drawer 13. Boston (Town) Public Library-Bostwick

Drawer 14. Bostwick-Bowyer

Drawer 15. Box-Brieu

Drawer 16. Brigden-Brown, Jos.

Drawer 17. Brown-Bunyan

Drawer 18. Buonaparte-Bystrom

Drawer 19. C-Cargo

Drawer 20. Carl XV-Chalvire

Drawer 21. Chambellau-Chapman, J.

Drawer 22. Chapman, Maria-Chatto

Drawer 23. Chaucer-Christy

Drawer 24. Chronotype-Clayton

Drawer 25. Clearance-Collingwood

Drawer 26. Collins-Cooling

Drawer 27. Coomaraswamy-Cranch, John

Drawer 28. Cranch, John-Customs of London

Drawer 29. Cutcheon-Davies, W.H.

Drawer 30. Davis-Dempster, W.

Drawer 31. Denarius (coin)-Dmowski

Drawer 32. Doan-Drayton, W.H.

Drawer 33. Dreadnought-Eayrs

Drawer 34. Ebbets-Emiraud

Drawer 35. Emerson-Euterpe

Drawer 36. Evance-Feburier

Drawer 37. Fechter-Fishing

Drawer 38. Fisk-Folz

Drawer 39. Fond-Foye

Drawer 40. Fraaye-Frazier

Drawer 41. Frederic-Fuller, W.

Drawer 42. Fullerton-Garrison, Wm.

Drawer 43. Garrison, William Lloyd (Manuscripts by)

Drawer 43. Garrison, William Lloyd (Letters from, 1823 to 1868)

Drawer 44. Garrison, William Lloyd (Letters from, 1869 to 1879)

Drawer 44. Garrison, William Lloyd (Letters to, A-Fyfe)

Drawer 45. Garrison, William Lloyd (Letters to, Gayle-Yerrinton)

Drawer 45. Garrison, William Lloyd (Subject, portraits, etc.)

Drawer 45. Garrison, William Lloyd, Jr. (1838-1909)

Drawer 46. Garsten-Gilly

Drawer 47. Gilman-Gottschalk, L.

Drawer 48. Goudin-Great Britain (War Office)

Drawer 49. Great Britain (Colonies)-Grierson

Drawer 50. Griggs, F.L.M.-Griswold, W.W.

Drawer 51. Grittos-Haldimand

Drawer 52. Hale, A.G.-Hancock, L.

Drawer 53. Hancock, N.-Harvard College

Drawer 54. Harvey-Heartman, C.F.

Drawer 55. Heat-Herzl

Drawer 56. Hesburgh-Higginson and Parsons

Drawer 57. Higgs, H.W.-Hoit

Drawer 58. Holbein, F.-Hopwood

Drawer 59. Horatius-Huff

Drawer 60. Hugentobler-Indy

Drawer 61. Infant-Jackson, H.

Drawer 62. Jackson, J.-Jevons

Drawer 63. Jewelers-Jonson, N.

Drawer 64. Jorat-Kingstown, St. Vincent

Drawer 65. Kinley-Lafuge

Drawer 66. La Galissoniere-Lawson

Drawer 67. Lawton, A.R.-Levy, W.T.

Drawer 68. Lew-Liszt, F.

Drawer 69. Litch, J.-Loos

Drawer 70. Lopez, F.-Lwoff-Parlaghy, Vilma

Drawer 71. Lydall, G.-McKey

Drawer 72. McKim. A.-Mammoth

Drawer 73. Man, Joseph-Maryland (History. Evolution)

Drawer 74. Masaoka-Mass. Governor, 1969

Drawer 75. Mass Harbor Commissioner-Masury

Drawer 76. Mata-Maxwell, W.H.

Drawer 77. May, Abby-May, Samuel

Drawer 78. May, Samuel (letters to)-May & Williams

Drawer 79. Maya, Mr.-Miller v Miller

Drawer 80. Millet-Moors, J.

Drawer 81. Mora-Munsterberg, M.

Drawer 82. Murat-New Era

Drawer 83. New Hampshire-Nicholson, Sir W.

Drawer 84. Nickanoose-Oldmixon

Drawer 85. Oldroyd-Paget

Drawer 86. Paige, Mrs.-Parker, S.P.

Drawer 87. Parker, T.-Paxton

Drawer 88. Payn-Pflueger

Drawer 89. Phalloff-Phillips, Wendell (Letters from, 1844-1883)

Drawer 90. Phillips, Wendell (Letters to, 1840)-Pierpont, James

Drawer 91. Pierpont, John-Poems (Webber, Samuel)

Drawer 92. Poems (anonymous)-Pratte

Drawer 93. Pray-Psychology

Drawer 94. Public health-Quitman

Drawer 95. R-Rehoboth

Drawer 96. Reichardt-Ristori

Drawer 97. Ritcher-Roots

Drawer 98. Rope-Rysbraek

Drawer 99. S-Sartwell

Drawer 100. Sasol-Sevitzky

Drawer 101. Sewall-Shute

Drawer 102. Siam-Smith, Ezra C.

Drawer 103. Smith, F.-Spalding, Ph.

Drawer 104. Spanish literature-Staves

Drawer 105. Stead-Stoughton

Drawer 106. Stow-Svenska

Drawer 107. Swab-Tenterden

Drawer 108. Tercentenary-Thompson, F.J.

Drawer 109. Thompson, G.-Tietjens

Drawer 110. Tiffany-Triunfo

Drawer 111. Troeltsch-United Press

Drawer 112. Unidentified student-U.S. history--Compromise of 1850

Drawer 113. U.S. history--Civil War-Vignoles

Drawer 114. Vilaire-Walz

Drawer 115. Wampapagan-Watrin

Drawer 116. Watson-Webb, W.H.

Drawer 117. Webber, C.-Westminster Review

Drawer 118. Weston-Weston, Deborah (letters to)

Drawer 119. Weston, E.-White Wings (Bark)

Drawer 120. Whitear-Wilks, M.

Drawer 121. Will-Winsmith, J.G.

Drawer 122. Winsor, C.-Wooster

Drawer 123. Worcester-Zygman

The default view for all digitized catalog cards is in the form of a book reader. With the scroll bar, you can navigate quickly through the whole drawer, or you can click from one card to the next using the "left" and "right" arrows. Limited keyword searching across the entire main entry file is available through the Internet Archive collections page. See the Keyword search tab above for detailed instructions.

The manuscript geographic file contains approximately 50,000 catalog cards, filed alphabetically by place of creation.

In the geographic file, most manuscripts are filed by continent, then country, then state/province, then city. Additionally:

  • Manuscripts created aboard seagoing vessels are filed under "A" for "at sea"
  • Manuscripts created in Ireland or in the U.K. are filed chronologically under Europe-->British Isles-->country-->city
  • Manuscripts created in the West Indies are filed chronologically under North America-->West Indies-->country-->city

Click on the links below to browse the cards online.

Geographic file (manuscripts)

Drawer 1. At sea; Africa-Australia and New Zealand

Europe, British Isles

Drawer 1 (cont'd). Europe and Great Britain generally; England (generally)-England (Bristol, 1846)

Drawer 2. England (Bristol, 1847-Hassocks)

Drawer 3. England (Hastings-London, undated)

Drawer 4. England (London, 1499-1820)

Drawer 5. England (London, 1821-1857)

Drawer 6. England (London, 1858-1896)

Drawer 7. England (London, 1897-Oxford, 1947)

Drawer 8. England (Pangbourne)-Ireland (Dublin, 1845)

Drawer 9. Ireland (Dublin, 1846)-Scotland (Glasgow, 1858)

Drawer 10. Scotland (Glasgow, 1862)-Wales (St. Asaph)

Europe, continental

Drawer 10 (cont'd). Austria-France (Paris, 1799)

Drawer 11. France (Paris, 1800s)-Germany (Berlin, 1826)

Drawer 12. Germany (Berlin, 1830)-Italy (Rome, 1797)

Drawer 13. Italy (Trieste)-Yugoslavia

North America

Drawer 13 (cont'd). Canada-Mexico

North America, United States

Drawer 13 (cont'd) United States (generally); Alabama-California (Los Angeles, 1968)

Drawer 14. California (Martinez)-Connecticut (New Haven, 1968)

Drawer 15. Connecticut (New London)-District of Columbia (Washington, D.C., 1849)

Drawer 16. District of Columbia (Washington, D.C., 1850)-Illinois (Chicago, 1889)

Drawer 17. Illinois (Chicago, 1890s)-Maine (Phillips)

Drawer 18. Maine (Portland)-Massachusetts (Amesbury)

Drawer 19. Massachusetts (Amherst-Boston, undated)

Drawer 20. Massachusetts (Boston, undated 17th century;1630-1750)

Drawer 21. Massachusetts (Boston, 1751-1774)

Drawer 22. Massachusetts (Boston, 1775-1802)

Drawer 23. Massachusetts (Boston, 1803-1834)

Drawer 24. Massachusetts (Boston, 1835-1839)

Drawer 25. Massachusetts (Boston, 1840-1846)

Drawer 26. Massachusetts (Boston, 1847-1854)

Drawer 27. Massachusetts (Boston, 1854-1862)

Drawer 28. Massachusetts (Boston, 1863-1876)

Drawer 29. Massachusetts (Boston, 1877-1892)

Drawer 30. Massachusetts (Boston, 1893-1959)

Drawer 31. Massachusetts (Boston, 1960-Cambridge, 1834)

Drawer 32. Massachusetts (Cambridge, 1835-1929)

Drawer 33. Massachusetts (Cambridge, 1930-Concord, 1865)

Drawer 34. Massachusetts (Concord, 1866-Gloucester)

Drawer 35. Massachusetts (Grafton-Leicester, 1865)

Drawer 36. Massachusetts (Leicester, 1866-Montague)

Drawer 37. Massachusetts (Nahant-Northampton, 1849)

Drawer 38. Massachusetts (Northampton, 1851-Roxbury, 1870)

Drawer 39. Massachusetts (Roxbury, 1871-Springfield, 1844)

Drawer 40. Massachusetts (Springfield, 1846-Weymouth, 1864)

Drawer 41. Massachusetts (Weymouth, 1865)-New Hampshire (Concord, 1849)

Drawer 42. New Hampshire (Concord, 1850)-New Jersey (Newark)

Drawer 43. New Jersey (Orange)-New York (New York, 1837)

Drawer 44. New York (New York, 1838-1853)

Drawer 45. New York (New York, 1854-1875)

Drawer 46. New York (New York, 1876-1891)

Drawer 47. New York (state, generally; Albany-Queens)

Drawer 48. New York (Rochester)-Ohio (Ripley)

Drawer 49. Ohio (Salem)-Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1840)

Drawer 50. Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1841-York County)

Drawer 51. Rhode Island-Texas

Drawer 52. Utah-Wyoming

North America, West Indies

Drawer 52 (cont'd) Antigua-Cuba (Santiago de Cuba)

Drawer 53. Dominican Republic-Trinidad & Tobago

South America

Drawer 53 (cont'd). Argentina-Venezuela

The default view for all digitized catalog cards is in the form of a book reader. With the scroll bar, you can navigate quickly through the whole drawer, or you can click from one card to the next using the "left" and "right" arrows. Limited keyword searching across the entire main entry file is available through the Internet Archive collections page. See the Keyword search tab above for detailed instructions.

The manuscript chronological file contains approximately 50,000 catalog cards, filed alphabetically by place.

Click on the links below to browse.

Chronological file (manuscripts)

Drawer 1. 605 BCE-1679

Drawer 2. 1680-1702

Drawer 3. 1703-1743

Drawer 4. 1744-1760 March

Drawer 5. 1760 April-1770 May

Drawer 6. 1770 June-1776 September

Drawer 7. 1776 October-1781

Drawer 8. 1782-1787 April

Drawer 9. 1787 May-1791

Drawer 10. 1792-1797 June

Drawer 11. 1797 July-1802 March

Drawer 12. 1802 April-1809 June

Drawer 13. 1809 July-1816 April

Drawer 14. 1816 May-1822 April

Drawer 15. 1822 May-1827 June

Drawer 16. 1827 July-1831 May

Drawer 17. 1831 June-1834 March

Drawer 18. 1834 April-1836 February

Drawer 19. 1836 March-1837 October

Drawer 20. 1837 November-1839

Drawer 21. 1839 January-1839 December

Drawer 22. 1840-November 1840

Drawer 23. 1840 December-1841 November

Drawer 24. 1841 December-1843

Drawer 25. 1843 January-1844 February

Drawer 26. 1844 March-1845 July

Drawer 27. 1845 August-1846 August

Drawer 28. 1846 September-1847

Drawer 29. 1848-1849 October

Drawer 30. 1849 November-1851 April

Drawer 31. 1851 May-1852 September

Drawer 32. 1852 October-1854

Drawer 33. 1854 January-1855 April

Drawer 34. 1855 May-1857 April

Drawer 35. 1857 May-1859 January

Drawer 36. 1859 February-1860 May

Drawer 37. 1860 June-1862 January

Drawer 38. 1862 February-1863 September

Drawer 39. 1863 October-1865 April

Drawer 40. 1865 May-1867 May

Drawer 41. 1867 June-1869 April

Drawer 42. 1869 May-1872 July

Drawer 43. 1872 August-1875

Drawer 44. 1876-1877

Drawer 45. 1878-1879 April

Drawer 46. 1879 May-1883

Drawer 47. 1884-1888 March

Drawer 48. 1888 April-1893 May

Drawer 49. 1893 June-1899 November

Drawer 50. 1899 December-1907

Drawer 51. 1908-1916 March

Drawer 52. 1916 April-1927 June

Drawer 53. 1927 July-1937

Drawer 54. 1938-1963

Drawer 55. 1964-1999

The default view for all digitized catalog cards is in the form of a book reader. With the scroll bar, you can navigate quickly through the whole drawer, or you can click from one card to the next using the "left" and "right" arrows. Limited keyword searching across the entire main entry file is available through the Internet Archive collections page. See the Keyword search tab above for detailed instructions.

Card catalog searching guide

1. Do you know the author's name, or the name of a person who is associated with the item, like the recipient of a letter or the subject of a biography?

  • Yes. Go to the digitized card catalog (above) and search by name. If the work is anonymous, search under the title.

  • No. If you do not know the name of an author or creator, go to step 2.

2. Do you know the place where the item was created?

  • Yes. Go to the geographic file (above) and search by place.
  • No. If you do not know the place of creation, go to step 3.

3. Do you know the date when the item was created?

  • Yes. Go to the chronological file (above) and search by date.
  • No. If you do not know when the item was created, go to step 4.

4. Is the item you’re looking for related to a particular subject, like mathematics or astronomy; or is it a particular kind of book or manuscript, like a diary or a Bible?

  • Yes. Search the digitized card catalog (above) by the subject or type of material. Certain special subjects and types of books and manuscripts have their own sections.
  • No. If you can't find your item by subject, go to step 5.

5. Can you think of ay keywords associated with the item?

  • Yes. Go to the keyword search tab, above.
  • No. Contact the Rare Books and Manuscripts Department. Just because something does not appear in our card catalogs, or elsewhere on our website, doesn’t mean we don’t have what you’re looking for!

Reading Catalog Cards

The information found in catalog cards is typically structured in order to be consistent from one card to the next. Information is also formulated to adhere to cataloging standards. So, for example, names are typically recorded last-name-first, certain abbreviations are used regularly, and the extent of an item (how many pages it contains) is recorded in a very particular way. Understanding where these pieces of info typically appear and what they usually look like will make it easier to use the card catalog. See the explanations below.


1. Author name. Allen, Joseph, Bp. of Ely, d. 1845

This is the name of the person primarily responsibly for the creation of the item. In this case, we are looking at a description of a letter written by Joseph Allen, Bishop of Ely (1770-1845).

2. Other associated name. To A[nthony] Panizzi

Anthony Panizzi was the recipient of this letter. Brackets typically enclose words or letters not found in the original manuscript. So in this case, we can assume that the name of the recipient appears in the letter as "A. Panizzi."

3. Date of creation. 1847 May 17

This is the date on which the item was created. The date typically appears in the upper-left portion of the card. If no date is known, cards are sometimes marked "n.d." (for no date). If date and month, but not year, are known, cards are sometimes marked "n.y." (for no year)

4. Place. [Dover St. London]

This is the place where the item was created. Usually this information is taken directly from the item. If it is not found on the item, but has been added to the description by the cataloger, it will usually be enclosed in brackets, as with this example.

5. Summary. Would be glad to purchase the brass bishop for the Cathedral . . .

This is a brief summary of the content of the item. These summaries are sometimes very lengthy, containing direct quotes. At other times, they can be very brief. Often they are omitted entirely.

6. Call number. G.51.7.1 no. 15.

A call number is a unique ID given to every item in the collection. A call number tells librarians where the item is stored. If you end up requesting to see a particular item, remember to always include the call number in your request. If you're not sure where the call number begins or ends, it's always better to include more info than less.

7. Extent and size. 2 pp. 4 1/2 x 7 1/2 cm.

In this area, the extent of an item (how many pages it's made up of) and the full size of the item is recorded. In this particular note, "pp." stands for pages -- the letter is two pages long and it measures 4.5 x 7.5 cm.

BPL's digitized card catalogs are hosted online by Internet Archive. Each card catalog has been digitized along with the geographic and chronological files that go along with it. Limited keyword searching within the card catalogs and their accompanying files is available through the Internet Archive collection page for each:

For best results, and to fully understand the significant limitations of keyword searching, please read the guide below.

Guide to keyword searching

To perform a limited keyword search of all cards in any specific catalog, first go to the Internet Archive collection page for the catalog you want to search.

Each collection page will have a search box on the left side of the screen. There are two buttons underneath the search box. Select the "text contents" button, type your query into the search box, then hit "enter." Files that contain matching results will appear. Click on each file to browse any cards that matched your search.

Once you have clicked on the file, you will see one or more blue marks along the scroll bar in the book reader. These marks show the locations of cards that contain text matching your search. You can scroll to the matches, or navigate directly to them using the arrow buttons above the scroll bar.

Limitations of searching

Search results should never be considered complete. The search engine relies on text files that have been automatically generated from digitized images of the cards themselves. The process of generating machine-readable text from images is called optical character recognition (OCR). OCR is far from perfect. Blurry or poorly printed cards, handwritten notes close to text, and even different typefaces can all render text generated via OCR extremely unreliable.

Above, a standard catalog card, with small, slightly blurred text. Below, the searchable text file generated from this image is partially garbled.

Note on Harmful Language

Boston Public Library catalog records describe historical materials that reflect the attitudes, ideas, and norms of the time periods and cultures in which they were created. Researchers using these records might therefore encounter direct quotations or detailed descriptions of original documents that incorporate inappropriate or harmful language used to describe persons and events. This includes language that is racist, misogynistic, homophobic, or ableist.

Furthermore, while the Boston Public Library strives to catalog its collections in an equitable and inclusive manner, we recognize that this has not always been the case. The majority of the records contained in our legacy card catalogs, for example, are decades old and reflect the prevailing biases of the time periods in which they were created.

Card catalogs also reflect the biases of the librarians, staff members, and affiliates who created them. Descriptions of materials contained in our card catalogs -- including titles, subject headings, and summary notes -- sometimes also contain harmful language and often prioritize access to information about white, male creators, while deprioritizing description and access to materials about women and people of color.

Because many of the electronic records contained in our online catalogs were copied over directly from cards, outdated and harmful language was sometimes carried over as well.

Catalog cards and electronic catalog records derived from catalog cards have been made available online because the access that they provide to primary source materials is uniquely valuable to the research community at large. Our efforts to repair outdated descriptions and to describe our collections more equitably are iterative and ongoing.