How to Prepare

To help researchers make the best use of their time at the MHS, the Reader Services staff offers the following suggestions on how to prepare for a visit.

Create a Portal1791 Account

Portal1791 is the automated request system of the MHS. All researchers must create an account as part of the registration process. All requests for materials are placed through Portal1791. By setting up an account in advance, researchers may schedule requests before they arrive at the library.

Please note, first-time researchers will need to present a valid, government-issued ID and be photographed by MHS staff in order to complete their registration. 

Search for Materials

Our online catalog, ABIGAIL, is the primary tool for navigating our holdings and is a great place to start your search. When available, use online collection guides to pinpoint which boxes, volumes, and/or microfilm reels will be most useful to you. If ABIGAIL indicates that a collection has an unpublished guide available in the library, the Reader Services staff will e-mail the guide as a PDF file on request.

In addition to the descriptive information available through ABIGAIL and the collection guides, descriptions of approximately 350,000 individual manuscript items are available on microfiche at the Society. Most of these item descriptions have been reproduced in the Catalog of Manuscripts of the Massachusetts Historical Society published by G.K. Hall in 1969 and 1980, which is available at over 100 libraries in the United States, as well as libraries in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Australia. If you cannot access the Catalog at a library near you, contact the Reader Services staff for assistance.

Pay careful attention when searching in ABIGAIL, as the records will indicate when it is necessary to make an appointment to view materials--this is typically required for viewing art and artifacts--and when material is in offsite storage, which requires advance notice so the material can be brought onsite for your visit.  See What to Expect for more information about requesting material from offsite storage.

Using Portal1791 researchers may submit up to 15 requests in advance of their visit.  They may also save records of items they may want to view in the future.  See the Portal1791 FAQ for more information about using Portal1791 to plan your visit.  It is important to note that requests will not be paged by MHS staff until a researcher has arrived in the building.  

Gauge Your Time

Working with manuscript collections often poses the challenge of determining the amount of time you will need to complete your research. ABIGAIL offers descriptions of the physical size of collections listing the quantity of boxes, cartons, and/or volumes which comprise each. Although the exact amount of material in each size box varies you can use the information below to gauge the amount of material you will need to examine:

  • A folder typically contains 15 items
  • A narrow box typically contains 15 folders
  • A box typically contains 30 folders
  • A carton typically contains 90 folders

The quantity of materials in oversize boxes and volumes varies greatly making it difficult to estimate how many pages may be contained within each one. 

Explore the MHS website

The MHS website offers several useful resources that contain digital reproductions and transcriptions of selected materials from our collections. Our Online Resources page offers organized access to these features, allowing you to browse by topic, time period, or format.

You can browse highlights of individual items in our collections in the MHS Gallery and the Object of the Month and Civil War Monthly Document features.

Working with the digital images and transcriptions of selected material from two of our most important collections, the Adams Family Papers and the Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts can answer a number of potential research questions.

Teachers and students will discover a wealth of curriculum-related material in our Digital Classroom and Lesson Plans pages.

You can also keyword search the text of our digitized collections using the “Site Search” function.

Secondary Sources

Doing initial research in secondary sources related to your subject can point you directly to collections, and often specific documents, pertinent to your research. Consulting secondary sources will save you time and energy as most modern sources will provide footnotes and bibliographies indicating where the author found the source material to support their arguments.

The MHS holds a large collection of print material to support researchers using MHS manuscript collections, and often can provide access to secondary source material on American and Massachusetts history-related topics. Your local public and our college library may offer a more diverse selection of secondary source material related to your topic.

Consult Other Institutions

Although the Society's collections are expansive and varied, researchers often need to visit many different institutions to find all materials relevant to their specific topic. And in some cases research projects are better served by the resources available at other institutions. Our Other Institutions page includes recommendations and contact information for additional libraries, repositories, and historical societies, all of which have particular strengths for the study of Massachusetts history.

Contact the Library Staff

It is always beneficial to contact the Reader Services staff prior to your visit. In most cases appointments are not required for use of the library, but to ensure the material you wish to consult is on-site and available for your visit it is best to let the staff know when you plan to arrive.