Colonial North America at Harvard Library is an ambitious project that seeks to digitise Harvard’s vast collection of materials related to the North American colonies, circa the 17th and 18th centuries. Spread out across 15 repositories and encompassing over 1,600 collections, the site rightly notes that this will be a years-long process – though a sizeable amount of material has already been made available online, with approximately 99% of collections digitised and with more to be added regularly.

Recognising the somewhat intimidating nature of such a large collection, the Colonial North America (CNA) team has provided a number of entry-points into their digitised holdings. The first can be found under the Browse tab, which allows users to browse a number of topical collections/exhibits. As the CNA team notes, these are not fully comprehensive compilations, but are instead wide-ranging examples of what can be found throughout the site. To that end, users can explore 6 broad topics: Women, The Sea, Maps, Families, Science, and Law. Each of these lead to an array of items and collections, ranging from ships’ logs and personal diaries to writings on natural history and the various laws of Harvard itself.

For an experience that provides more context and historical background, site users have the option of exploring A Closer Look. Here, the CNA team have collected essays on topics such as Food in Colonial North America, or Medicine. Given that each essay has been thoroughly researched and written by an academic expert, these provide well-written introductions and excellent overviews of the issue at hand, all while engaging with items from the CNA collection. Correspondingly, they are very effective at demonstrating how different items/collections can be used to inform academic research, while also serving as accessible entry-points to the site’s numerous holdings.

In terms of the digitised records themselves, searching for a topic such as ‘Grain’ will bring up both individual item records as well as entire collections. As noted by the CNA team, the decision to include both collection-level and item-level records was a deliberate choice, as this would allow site users to have a richer, more contextualised experience of these digitisations. This is an incredibly useful method of showcasing search results, as the inclusion of these additional materials help a lot with viewing individual ones within a broader context and also have the potential of highlighting new connections between different records.

When examining item-level records, users are able to view a high resolution scan of the records in question as well as further information about it, this including but not limited to language, date, and original repository. Importantly, users also have the ability to view other items within the same collection. Clicking the More Information tab, in turn, will link out to a new page that contains an overview of the collection. The latter is particularly useful, as these overviews often note the scope and content of the material inside the collection, along with any further historical information about it.

Meanwhile, collection-level records provide an overview of the collection itself, these including short notes about its content and general themes/subjects. Interestingly, some collections also come with additional resources. Collections on women and business, for instance, (see this one for example) are accompanied by an extensive online guide called Women, Enterprise and Society, though it’s currently a bit unclear as to whether a similar resource exists for other collections.

In terms of using the site for classes and units, the bulk of the website is geared mostly towards academic research rather than K-12 usage. Nevertheless, teachers will still likely find more than enough material to go on. The essays in A Closer Look will work well as assigned readings for students doing American history units in higher year levels, while younger students might also benefit from reading a number of selected passages. While the writing of most records will be difficult for most students to decipher, teachers can take advantage of the easy-to-use search function to incorporate different types of primary source material into their lessons. For example, searching for something as simple as ‘Apples’ will bring up item records that range from personal diaries, bills, and receipts, to foreign letters and invoices from the West Indies. By incorporating these everyday documents into history lessons, teachers have a chance to bring an added sense of ‘realness’ to their lessons, where the historical is not too far removed from the human and relatable. Further to that, teachers can also consider trying to transcribe selected short documents (e.g. diary entries, letters) with their classes. This can then allow for an easy segue into discussions about how language and world-views have changed over time – or not at all, in some cases.

Given the amount of thought that has gone into a project of this scale, there is very little critique to offer. The site on a whole is easy to use, user-friendly, and clearly labelled, all of which makes for a seamless user experience. In this case, perhaps the only minor comment pertains to the number of essays and categories in the A Closer Look and Browse sections respectively, as given the sheer amount of content available, the current offerings only cover a small section of the archive. As the CNA team is actively inviting ideas for new topics, however, it might only be a matter of time until more categories/themes are uploaded onto the site. On a related note, it’s also worth highlighting that the categories in the scrollable A Closer Look section on the homepage are slightly different to what’s listed on the actual webpage of that section, with the homepage listing two additional resources: an exhibit called Portals to the Past, and an essay on Canada.

Providing easy access to a wide range of documents, maps, manuscripts, and various other types of archival material, the CNA site will definitely be one to bookmark, regardless of whether you’re a researcher, educator, or someone with a passing interest in the period/region. Given its wealth of content, it will certainly be interesting to see what kind of new research arises from a repository such as this one.

Reviewed by Joanna Lee, Monash University
How to Cite This Source
Joanna Lee, Colonial North America at Harvard Library in World History Commons,