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the author's own copy, prepared and submitted for publication in print. 3) Handwriting.1 Manuscripts are essentially unpublished documents, and may include: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 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. Yet if you are trying to find the answer to a research question that hasn't been previously answered by other researchers, or want to learn more about the day-to-day life of your ancestors, you can't afford to overlook this valuable resource.
Finding Aids to Manuscript Collections
No comprehensive online database exists for easily locating manuscript collections around the world. There are, however, several online tools available for locating some manuscript collections across multiple repositories.
- The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) is an index to mostly unpublished materials in both well-known and obscure repositories across primarily the United States and Canada. NUCMC records created since 1986 can be searched on the website of the Library of Congress through the RLG Union Catalog. NUCMC records created from 1959 to 1985 are available in printed volumes that can be found at major libraries throughout the country. Archive Finder, available by annual subscription to libraries and other institutions, makes all of NUCMC (1959 to the present) fully searchable online. A similar service, ArchiveGrid, includes most records from the NUCMC catalog as well. You can usually access one or both of these databases through state libraries, academic libraries, and archives—they aren't really intended for individual subscription. When searching for records, it is important to know that dates in the NUCMC refer to the date the records were catalogued, not when they were created. Many older records have been added to the collection since 1986, and are available in the free version available on the Library of Congress website.
- The UK Archives Hub is a searchable index to collection level descriptions of archival collections held by over 60 higher education institutions in the UK (not all collections have been cataloged).
A2A, or Access to Archives, is a rapidly growing database of catalogs describing materials found primarily in County Record Offices and some private institutions across England and Wales.
1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., "manuscript."