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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 an online system for requesting MHS research materials. All requests for materials are placed through the portal.

As part of the registration process, researchers must create a portal account. By setting up an account in advance, researchers may schedule requests before they arrive at the library. Researchers also have the option to create an account once they arrive at the MHS.

First-time researchers will need to present a valid, government-issued photo ID and be photographed by MHS staff in order to complete their registration (for more information on the registration process, see “What to Expect”).

Search for Materials

Our online catalog, ABIGAIL, is the primary tool for exploring MHS holdings and is a great place to start your search. In addition, many manuscript, photograph, and other collections have online guides [link] available that provide background information about the collection and help you 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 If ABIGAIL indicates that a collection has an unpublished guide available in the library, the Reader Services staff will e-mail the guide as a PDF file upon request.

It is important to pay careful attention when searching in ABIGAIL, as the records will indicate when it is necessary to make an appointment to view certain materials, typically art and artifacts, and when items are stored offsite. Offsite items require advance notice so the material can be delivered onsite for your visit (see “What to Expect” for more information about requesting material from offsite storage).

Using Portal1791, you may submit up to 25 requests in advance of your visit. The portal also allows you to save records of items you may wish to view in the future.  See the Portal1791 FAQ for more information about using Portal1791 to plan your visit. Requests will not be retrieved by MHS staff until a researcher has arrived in the building.

In addition to the descriptive information available through ABIGAIL and the collection guides, descriptions of approximately 350,000 individual manuscript items stored at the MHS are available on microfiche at the library. 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 more than 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.

Gauge Your Time

Determining how much time you will need to complete your research can be challenging. The ABIGAIL record for each collection indicates the number of boxes, cartons, and/or volumes contained within that collection. The list below shows roughly how much material you can expect to find within a given container:

  • 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 amount 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 resources containing digital reproductions and transcriptions of selected materials from our collections. Our Online Resources page allows  you to browse these features by topic, time period, or format.

You can browse highlights of individual items in our collections in the Highlights from our Collections, 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 our Classroom Resources.

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

Secondary Sources

Consulting secondary sources can save you time and effort by pointing you directly to collections, and often individual documents, pertinent to your research. These sources usually provide footnotes and bibliographies indicating where the authors found the source material to support their arguments.

The MHS holds a large collection of print material to support researchers using MHS manuscript collections, particularly secondary sources on American and Massachusetts history-related topics. Your local public and your 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 different institutions to find all materials relevant to their 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.