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Overview of the Berenson Library collections
The Berenson Library makes a rich array of resources available for the study of all aspects of Italian society and culture in the Renaissance, broadly conceived, and for research on other subjects as well. In addition to its in-house collections, all on-site users also have access through the Harvard Library to a multitude of pertinent online resources.
A new course
Consistent with the scholarly mission of the Harvard Center, since the early 1960s the development of the library’s collections in all formats has focused mainly on Italy in the “long” Renaissance from roughly 1200 to 1650, and on closely associated subjects. This emphasis diverges from the profile of the private library that Harvard inherited from Bernard Berenson, which while large and distinguished owed more to the eclectic interests and passions of its founders than to any systematic design.
The original collection ranged widely across subjects from the ancient world to the twentieth century, highlighting in its scholarly core the growth of Western visual culture from antiquity through the early modern period. Outside Berenson’s own fields of expertise in Italian Renaissance painting and drawing, his library gave no particular prominence either to Italy or to the Renaissance, and its holdings for the history, literature, and music of the period were meager or lacking altogether.
In the context of the new research center, then, much of the library’s collection had to be built painstakingly from the foundations up. Over the past decades the library has successfully met the challenges of tailoring the collections to the Center’s multi-disciplinary mission and of building a research library that sustains the information needs of modern scholars.
Though more selective in the early years, the library now aims to provide comprehensive research-level coverage of current scholarship on the history, fine and applied arts, music, literature, religion and philosophy, law, politics, science and medicine, and other aspects of late medieval and early modern Italy. It also collects significant works in the allied fields of classical and medieval studies and texts, Byzantine, Islamic, and Mediterranean studies, Renaissance Europe, and the world at that time even farther to the east and west. In music history, a post-Berenson addition to the library, the collection ranges more widely on European subjects, and the Morrill Music Library, established in 1964, has become one of the most comprehensive research collections in Europe for medieval, Renaissance, and early Baroque music.
Overall the library has grown from around 52,000 volumes and 130 scholarly journals received when the Center opened, to some 175,000 volumes and 640 current periodicals today.
In addition to acquiring works of recent scholarship, the Berenson Library has significant special collections that offer fresh opportunities for research and discovery, both on the Renaissance and beyond. Though the library does not systematically collect rare books as such (nor did the Berensons), it owns a considerable number of early printed books and important modern works that include many rare and occasionally unique items. Additionally, some 10,000 pre-1830 books and 2,000 music manuscripts are held on microforms. The library also has a noteworthy collection of a wide range of materials, some quite rare, relating to Bernard Berenson's passion for Asian and Islamic art.
The renowned photograph archive, begun by the Berensons and still growing, together with a large collection of related auction catalogs, not only document many thousands of artworks, but also furnish still untapped primary resources for the study of the early twentieth-century art market in which Berenson was a key protagonist. The library also holds the extensive personal papers and correspondence of Bernard and Mary Berenson, a remarkable window onto their lives and their world, and the growing historical archive includes the papers of other notable individuals and institutions of the twentieth century as well.