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Family History Research in Manuscript Collections

How to Locate & Use Manuscript Collections

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How often have you wished that your ancestors left behind a diary? Letters? Business records? How sure are you that they did not? Manuscript collections, filled with these types of personal and family records, are available in the special collections of thousands of libraries, universities, museums, historical societies, and archives around the world. These rich collections are often overlooked by genealogists, however, despite the wealth of biographical information and personal insights they can provide. Even when your own family is not the subject of a collection, you may find them mentioned within the records of a friend, relative or neighbor. Contemporary accounts of others from your ancestors' locality, ethnicity, or religion can also provide further depth to the stories of your own family.

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the author's own copy, prepared and submitted for publication in print. 3) Handwriting.1 Manuscripts are essentially unpublished documents, and may include: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
Due to the anuscripts may be described with varying levels of detail, and cataloged with varying degrees of completeness, even within a single repository. Because most manuscript collections are organized by creator, collections which reference a particular individual or topic can often be difficult to locate. Online catalogs, indexes, subject guides, and finding aids can be a valuable tool to help locate pertinent materials, but even they may describe the manuscripts they catalog with varying degrees of detail and completeness, even within a single repository.

Next > Tools & Strategies for Locating Manuscript Collections


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1. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., "manuscript."

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