The Archive Lady: What are Manuscript Collections?

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Joan from Minnesota asks “I was listening to your webinar on scrapbooks and you mentioned that scrapbooks can be found in manuscript collections. What are manuscript collections?”

Manuscript collections are my favorite collections to do research in and to also process in the archives. I was so excited to see Joan’s question come in last week because I love to tell genealogists about manuscript collections.

Manuscript collections can be a very rich resource for genealogists. If you do not know about these collections and are not accessing them in the archives where your ancestors lived, you could be missing out on a gold mine.

A manuscript collection could be as small as one box and as large as 200 boxes or larger. The majority of manuscript collections are materials donated by individuals or organizations. Manuscript collections are a collection of various documents, photographs and artifacts related to one person, family or organization arranged in a box-by-box, folder-by-folder method with a finding aid.

Lyle Family Records Collection before processing, Houston County, TN. Archives
Lyle Family Records Collection before processing, Houston County, TN. Archives

Very few manuscript collections can be found fully digitized and online. Usually the best strategy is to locate the finding aid to a manuscript collection online or an index of the manuscript collections that an archive holds. Manuscript collections are found in archives, libraries, historical societies, genealogical societies, university collections and even in museums. You will have to contact the archive by phone, email or you will have to visit the archive to find out what they have if the collection or finding aid is not online.

Always check the archive website for an index of what is contained in their manuscript collections. Make notes of the collections that are of interest and could contain information that is needed. If a downloadable finding aid is available, download it and look at the “Content Listing”. The content listing is a box-by-box, file-by-file listing of what is contained in the collection. If the archive does not have an online index of their manuscript collections or finding aids, you will have to contact the facility by phone, email or actually visit the archive to access these indexes.

Finding Aid Title Page, Houston County, TN. Archives
Finding Aid Title Page, Houston County, TN. Archives

The finding aid is the most important part of the manuscript collection. Every collection should have a finding aid to help navigate the genealogist through the specific records collection. Some important parts of a finding aid are:

  • Title Page: The beginning of the finding aid includes the name of the archival repository, the title of the archival collection, finding aid creation information, and a date range for the materials in the archive.
  • Summary Information: This section lists the creator of the materials in the archive, the size and extent of the collection and a brief description of the collection contents.
  • Access and Use: If there are any restrictions placed on a collection, they will be noted in this section. Other information could include how the archive received the collection as well as copyright and citation information.
  • Background Information: This section details the history or biographical information relating to the collection and how it was created.
  • Scope, Content and Arrangement: This section provides an overview of the types of materials in the collection and how they have been arranged.
  • Related Materials: This part points the researcher to other items in the archives or elsewhere that are closely related to the collection described in the finding aid.
  • Contents Listing: Sometimes called “container contents,” this section describes the box-by-box, folder-by-folder listing of the materials stored in the collection. The amount of detail in this part may vary depending on the collection and the individual archive practices.
Irish Celebration Manuscript Collection, Houston County, TN. Archives
Irish Celebration Manuscript Collection, Houston County, TN. Archives

The content listing is the most important part of the finding aid and the manuscript collection. The content listing is where the genealogist will be able to see what types of records are in the collection. Unfortunately, most contents listings are not very specific. For example a listing could read “Box #1, Folder #1 Correspondence 1700-1777.” This means that contained in this one folder are letters and correspondence dating from 1700-1777 and could be written by anyone to anyone. Most archives do not have the staff or time to list each and every document by name at the folder level, so you will have to decide whether or not the folder of information could be important to your research.

Manuscript collections may not be easily accessible to those that are not able to travel, but don’t let that deter you from using this valuable records collection. Contact the archive where the records are located and talk to the archivist about what you are seeking. Be as specific as you can with your requests. Archivists are there to help and are usually eager to help genealogists find the records they are seeking.

Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine Legacy Family Tree Webinar

Scrapbooks! Do you want to know how to find scrapbooks about your ancestors or do you have scrapbooks that you own and would like to know how to preserve them? Watch my latest Legacy Family Tree Webinar:

Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine

Scrapbooks: A Genealogist’s Gold Mine

Preserving Old Family Letters: Tips from an Archivist Legacy Quick Guide

Preserving Old Family Letters

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Melissa Barker - The Archive LadyMelissa Barker lives in Tennessee Ridge, Tennessee. She is the Houston County (TN) Archivist and a Professional Genealogist. She writes the blog, A Genealogist in the Archives, and has been researching her own family for over 26 years. She lectures, teaches and writes about researching in archives and records preservation. 

©2017, copyright Melissa Barker. All rights Reserved.