Skip to Main Content

NCC News: News

Japanese Studies Spotlight: Digitizing and Making Accessible the Rare Book Collection of Harvard-Yenching Library

by Paula Curtis on 2023-12-13T11:29:02-05:00 | 0 Comments

The NCC is collaborating with institutions and scholars to release a monthly series on our blog entitled Japanese Studies Spotlight. These features showcase exciting online collections available to researchers and students in Japanese Studies, introducing the archive or project, describing their contents, and demonstrating how they can be usefully engaged in research or in the classroom. If you are interested in submitting something to the series, please contact Paula R. Curtis, NCC’s Digital Media Manager, at

Kuniko Yamada McVey, Librarian for the Japanese Collection, Harvard-Yenching Library


As more and more libraries and archives work to facilitate ease of access to their invaluable collections, digitization has proved a crucial means of making rare and historical works available and visible to researchers. Over the last decade, Harvard-Yenching Library (HYL) has endeavored to make parts of their Japanese collection, including some 400,000 volumes of books and manuscripts, digitally accessible.

Our latest and ongoing digitization project, which began in January of 2019 and, after a pause during the pandemic, resumed in 2023, is our largest in scale and most comprehensive to date. It covers almost all the language, literature, and arts materials in our “Rare Book Collection,” amounting to 1077 titles in over 3,000 volumes.[1] Most of these materials were published and/or produced prior to 1868. As of December 3, 2023, the library has completed the digitization of 710 titles in some 2,700 volumes, offering a fascinating peek into the richness and diversity of the collections. This article will offer a preview of some notable works from this project followed by a brief description of Harvard’s digitization program.

Figure 1. Ryutei Tanehiko, Nise Murasaki inaka Genji 偐紫田舍源氏 (A Fake Murasaki and a Rural Genji, 1829-1842. Covers of Vols. 1 & 2.

The Harvard-Yenching Library’s Rare Book Collection is particularly rich in Edo period (1615-1868) popular literature, including yomihon 読本 (popular readers; literally “reading books”) and kibyōshi 黄表紙 (humorous illustrated books; literally “yellow cover books”), which flourished in the mid-eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries. Major authors are well represented in the collection, including 3 titles by Ryūtei Tanehiko 柳亭種彥 (1783-1842), 11 titles by Kyokutei Bakin 曲亭馬琴 (1767-1848), 10 titles by Santō Kyōden 山東京伝 (1761-1816) and 5 titles by Tamenaga Shunsui 為永春水 (1790-1844?). The collection also includes works by the extraordinary illustrators Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎 (1760–1849) (17 titles) and Utagawa Toyokuni 歌川豊国 (1769-1825) (4 titles).[2]

Figure 1 above showcases two covers from Nise Murasaki inaka Genji 偐紫田舍源氏 (A Fake Murasaki and a Rural Genji), a nineteenth century adaptation of the famed Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari) by Ryūtei Tanehiko. Presented in ezōshi 絵草子 format (popular narratives with pictures), the publication features 38 unites in 76 volumes and was a bestseller in early modern publications. The illustrations are masterfully done by the artist Utagawa Kunisada II 歌川国貞 (1823-1880), and the rich covers like those above and Figure 2. below were designed in pairs, meant to form a single image.

Figure 2. Ryutei Tanehiko, Nise Murasaki inaka Genji 偐紫田舍源氏 (A Fake Murasaki and a Rural Genji, 1829-1842. Covers of Vols. 3 & 4.

Harvard Library has been digitizing its collection for nearly two decades, during which time its policies and practices have evolved along with technologies of access and preservation as well as the Library's organizational changes. The 6 million objects within the Harvard Digital Collections platform are all searchable and accessible online, and the Harvard-Yenching Library’s efforts to enhance the discoverability and use of its collections is one part of Harvard Library’s larger digitization goals.

Currently, the library digitization program is largely centralized and undertaken in-house, with HL Imaging Services playing an essential role to facilitate each project from start to finish. There are varieties of criteria in selecting projects, and, crucially, funding is necessary for the immense labor involved from initial cataloging and processing to digitization and metadata creation for each individual object. Funding sources could be various. To be selected, materials are required to be cataloged and cleared of any potential copyright issues. To the benefit of Japan scholars, books and objects in our collections that are quite old rarely have legal hurdles to overcome for digitization.

Once the project is selected, all the materials to be digitized are sent to the HL Preservation Services to have their physical condition by conservators. If necessary, some items might be treated before and after digitization.

Figure 3. Ehon Saiyūki, Vol. 3, Seq. 14 Ryūo (Dragon King) 繪本西遊記 巻 3, 1806-1833

If we look at Figure 3 above we can see an example of a manuscript that might require careful examination. This is early nineteenth century copy of Ehon Saiyūki 繪本西遊記 is a Japanese translation of the popular Chinese novel Journey to the West (Saiyūki), about the legendary pilgrimage of a Tang Buddhist monk to Central Asia and India with his disciples. Our set of 40 volumes is missing volumes 8 and 9, and is in generally poor condition. They seem to have been heavily used, perhaps as a part of commercial lending libraries (kashihonnya 貸本屋), a common practice at the time. Note the dark marks on the bottom left and right of Figure 3–these areas of almost all the pages in our copies show these signs of wear and tear, a testament to the fact that these books were well-loved by Edo readers.

After any issues of preservation and conservation have been addressed, a Harvard-Yenching Library curatorial assistant for Special Collections and her supervisor oversee the workflow and support logistics for the digitization project. This might include materials shipment with Imaging Services and post-scanning quality control tasks to ensure that the end results are consistent and up to our standards.

All digital contents produced by and for Harvard Library with IIIF manifests are stored in the central storage managed by our DRS (Digital Resource Services) which is currently under a major transition to a new system. The creation of IIIF manifests for these objects is an essential part of enhancing their accessibility and usability for scholars and students.

Figure 4. Shinpen Suiko gaden, Vol. 1 “Evil creatures came out of the destroyed Fushima palace.” Seq. 39 新編水滸畫傳 巻之一「伏魔殿壊て百八の悪星世に出, 1805-1838

For objects like that of Figure 4 above, Shinpen Suiko gaden 新編水滸畫傳 (New Edition of Illustrated Suikoden, or The Water Margin) or the aforementioned Ehon Saiyūki, digital availability is a crucial part of studying topics like the early modern publishing industry and the artists within it. This popular Chinese epic story, which exists in 90 volumes, was translated by Kyokutei Bakin and Takai Ranzan 高井蘭山 (1762-1838) and featured Hokusai’s illustrations. This edition was so popular that multiple variant editions were published into the Meiji period. With IIIF capability on these and other digitized volumes at other institutions, it is possible to virtually display them side-by-side in digital viewers and compare how these editions may have changed over time in response to publisher demands, reader interests, or technological changes in book publication.

There are many more spectacular volumes in our Rare Books Collection that have been digitized that cannot be fully covered here, some notable ones including Nanso Satomi Hakkenden 南總里見八犬傳 (The Eight Dog Chronicles) Bakin’s masterpiece of historical fantasy, with nine units in 141 volumes (Figure 5). It is considered the largest work in Japanese literature, and our set is complete with original covers.

Figure 5. Nansō Satomi Hakkenden, Vol. 1, 南總里見八犬傳 巻一 Back cover (seq. 33), 1814-1842

Hokusai’s collaboration with Bakin is well known, though he collaborated on a wide range of subjects and with numerous creators. Some of his collaborations our collection are the 1804 Ehon kyōka yama mata yama : jō chū ge 画本狂歌山滿多山 上中下 (Picture Book of Kyōka Poems: Mountains upon Mountains), with 32 scenes of Edo city by Hokusei in color for the three-volume collection of kyōka (playful poems); Tōshisen ehon 唐詩選畫本 (The Illustrated Anthology of Tang-Dynasty Poems (1788-1836), a visual set of 7 units in 35 volumes of highly popular Tang poetry, which featured contributions from Hokusai and Takai Ranzan in units 6 and 7; and Hokuetsu Kidan 北越奇談 (Strange tales from the Northern Province of Echigo) from 1811, a collection of essays on local topics in the Echigo region such as ghost stories by the local literati Tachibana Konron 橘崑崙 in 6 volumes (Figure 6.). Ryūtei Tanehiko contributed to the publication project and Hokusai provided illustrations.

Figure 6. Hokuetsu kidan, Vol. 5, sq.13. Hebi (Snake) 北越奇談 巻 5, 1811

Beyond our Edo period works, there are also numerous other volumes worth noting that include books, manuscripts, scrolls, postcards, and visual design catalogs. For example, we have a first edition (1905-1907) of the satirical fiction Wagahai wa neko de aru 吾輩は猫である (I am a Cat) by famed author Natsume Soseki 夏目漱石 (1867-1916). The first edition of this satirical fiction narrated by the domestic cat was the first fiction written by Natsume Soseki. Though the provenance of the book is unknown, the volume has Soseki’s hand-written description of the book in English (signed as K. Natsume, dated May 17, 1908) on the blank page right after the story begins.

Figure 7. Natsume Soseki, Wagahai wa neko de aru 吾輩は猫である (I am a Cat, 1905-1907)

The Petzold collection of Japanese scrolls digitization project, which was completed in 2012, made accessible 424 objects, mostly hanging scrolls, on Japanese Buddhism and other religions. These items were collected by Bruno Petzold (1873-1949), a German educator and Tendai monk, while living in Japan in 1910-1949. Our visual finding aid was designed to help researchers and students more easily locate pieces of interest. Our Japanese Art and Design digitization project done in 2015 made 44 Japanese art and design catalogs from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century available, many of which were collected and donated by Earnest G. Stillman (1884-1949). Just prior to our new digitization initiatives described above, in 2018 we also completed work on a collection of 2,400 postcards related to Manchukuo of various origins and themes.

As 2024 rapidly approaches, we are continuing our efforts to digitize the rare collections housed at Harvard-Yenching Library. Those Japanese “Rare Books” classified in Literature and Art (1,007 titles) are expected to have digitization complete by the end of June 2024. Many exciting genres of Edo period books will be available and open for anyone to view, including ehon 絵本, etehon 絵手本, gafu 画譜, and Nara ehon 奈良絵本. Although we do not have concrete plans for our next digitization projects after the current one is complete, the Harvard Library Collections Digitization Program is pursuing many other themes for digitization among the university’s diverse materials, including 2024’s theme “Climate Change and Impact of Colonialism.” We hope to continue making our invaluable holdings more accessible and discoverable to all scholars and researchers. We encourage readers to visit our digital collections and explore its rich publications.

[1] The Rare Book Collection Yenching classifications are #5000-5999 (Language and Literature) and #6000-6999 (Fine and Reactive Arts).

[2] Harvard-Yenching Library holds 54 titles of Hokusai’s works produced before 1868. Many of his books classified in Art are to be digitized in 2024.

 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.


  Follow Us

  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.

North American Coordinating Council on Japanese Library Resources
Copyright 2017
Contact the Webmaster