The American Heritage Dictionary defines a manuscript as: 1) A book, document, or other composition written by hand. 2) A typewritten or handwritten version of a book, an article, a document, or other work, especially the author's own copy, prepared and submitted for publication in print. 3) Handwriting.1 Manuscripts are essentially unpublished documents, and may include:
- personal books and papers such as letters, diaries, journals, family Bibles, pedigree charts, notes, photographs, and family documents.
- business records, such as those kept by physicians, shop keepers, lawyers, bankers, notaries, coroners and undertakers.
- public and private records from churches, courthouses, schools, prisons and other institutions.
Manuscripts are overlooked or avoided as a resource by many genealogists due to access. Most of these collections are not available online, in digitized form, or even on microfilm. Finding aids to manuscript collections can often be difficult to locate and navigate, and many aren't detailed enough to name every mentioned individual. A document relating to your ancestors might be found in a state in which your ancestor never lived, or in a collection of papers belonging to a neighbor, or even the local school teacher, doctor, or store keeper. How are we to know to look for it there? Yet if you are trying to find the answer to a question that hasn't been discovered by other researchers despite years of research, or want to learn more about the day-to-day life of your ancestors, you can't afford to overlook the valuable treasures found in manuscript collections.
How Manuscript Collections are Categorized
The following terms are used by archivists to describe the documentary materials found in manuscript collections.
- Papers generally describes a collection created by an individual. Example: Lucy Cherry Crisp Papers, Joyner Library, East Carolina University
- Records usually describes a collection created by a business or organization, but may also sometimes be used to describe a combination of either "records" or "personal papers." Example: Bee Ridge Presbyterian Church Records, 1929–1959, Sarasota County (FL) History Center
- Collection is typically used to describe materials brought together artificially by an archivist or collector based on theme, locality, person, event, or type of document. Example: Coal Company Payroll Ledger Collection, Indiana University of Pennsylvania
1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., "manuscript."