The collecting policy of the Massachusetts Historical Society reflects the Society’s mission as an independent research library that collects, preserves, makes accessible, and communicates manuscripts and other materials that promote the study of the history of Massachusetts and the nation. The MHS primarily acquires manuscript collections of permanent historical value created by individuals or families with strong connections to Massachusetts and, to a lesser extent, the records of organizations. In collecting, the MHS builds on the great strength of its existing manuscript collections, and focuses on materials that elucidate the role of Massachusetts in the history of the United States.
The MHS does not have a chronological cut-off date for acquisitions. For the second half of the twentieth century and beyond, the MHS actively acquires collections in focused subject areas (the Society’s environmental history initiative, for example), but typically does not collect genealogical resources, local historical materials, or business records, except as additions that enhance existing collections. For personal papers created during this period, the MHS seeks to collect a representative sample of those kept by Massachusetts individuals and families who played a unique role or whose papers document a unique or underrepresented aspect of American life where the documentation of those experiences make up a significant part of the collection.
The geographical scope of the Society’s research collections emphasizes Massachusetts, but covers a much wider area through the colonial and early national period. The Society recognizes the strengths and collecting areas of other regional and national archives, libraries, and museums, and works cooperatively with other collecting repositories to ensure that research materials are placed in the most appropriate home.
Where possible, the Society acquires coherent collections of manuscripts, rather than individual documents. To build the Society’s collection, acquisitions seek to supplement existing strengths and/or fill gaps in existing holdings. The MHS accepts deposits of research materials that are open to investigators under the same terms as the collections that it owns and that meet the same rigorous standards of evaluation. The MHS seeks, but does not require, financial support from donors for processing, preservation, and permanent storage of collections.
Although secondary to manuscripts, the Society holds a large and important collection of published materials that support research in the collection by staff and researchers alike. The Society holds early and rare Massachusetts imprints including broadsides and pamphlets; new additions to this collection are actively sought. Newspapers, serial publications, engravings, and maps are a major resource for researchers, but collecting in this area is secondary to manuscripts and imprints mentioned above. The MHS holds modern secondary books critical to the interpretation of the Society's manuscript collections. This part of the collection is used heavily by both staff and researchers, but collection development in this area has become overly reliant on books given to the Society as gifts. The MHS makes targeted purchases for this segment of the collection in order to provide the best sources currently available for research.
The MHS collects works of art, historical artifacts, photographs, and numismatics only as they complement or enhance its holdings. Art and artifacts are not collected for their intrinsic value, but rather for their use in historical interpretation of the Society’s research collections and for use in exhibitions.
The MHS Collections Committee reviews the Collecting Policy on a regular basis and changes or additions to the policy are forwarded to the Board of Trustees for its approval.