In a recent virtual curatorial discussion, Houghton librarian John Overholt took an item from the Colonial North America collections to share with his audience. Rather than highlighting a letter from John Hancock or a cameo of George Washington, Overholt chose a yellowed piece of paper with a faded inventory from a sugar plantation in Antigua. The plantation’s owner, Slingsby Bethell, had listed the plantation’s enslaved people as though they were cattle or sheaves of wheat.
Speaking to why he chose this item from hundreds of thousands in the colonial-era collection, Overholt explained, “In a system designed to erase every trace of enslaved peoples’ humanity, this is one of the few records of it.”
The record exists digitally now because, nearly 10 years ago, Harvard Library began a project to digitize all its unpublished 17th- and 18th-century manuscripts and archives related to colonial North America. This turned out to mean more than 700,000 pages of material, from the seemingly mundane to those related to well-known historical figures.
The digitization project was finished this spring, and Harvard Library staff and partners from other institutions celebrated its completion with a virtual symposium in early April. A key theme of the symposium was reflecting on the upper-class, British, male-centric view through which many American students learn about the colonial era — and the opportunities to change this. Harvard curators argue that free, digital collections like this one provide a chance to change how we think, learn, and teach when it comes to colonial North America.
“There was no cherry-picking, no hand-selection of special items, and we wanted to focus mostly on unpublished manuscripts and archives,” Sniffin-Marinoff said. The breadth of the collection, which is centered on North American experiences but contains stories from across the globe, inspired its new title, “Worlds of Change.”
The new title was introduced at April’s symposium and is also descriptive of the colonial era — a world of unprecedented connections and encounters between peoples that caused dramatic change at the time, changes that still reverberate in the present.
The digitized collection includes vaccination records and written medical advice, court documents and bills of sale, church congregation listings and school awards. There are pieces of music, poems, and recipes. There are young women’s journal entries, letters between friends, and correspondence between colonists and Indigenous people.