(Kimberly Powell’s Genealogy Blog – January 19, 2016)
Family History Research in Manuscript Collections
You’ve found birth, death and marriage records for your ancestors. Traced them through every census enumeration you can find. Perhaps you’ve even found a will, or a newspaper obituary. What’s next? Here we take a peek at just a few small examples of the many other records that await!
How to Locate & Use Manuscript Collections
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.
Manuscripts are essentially unpublished documents, and may include: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
Manuscripts 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.
Online Tools & Hubs for Locating Manuscript Collections
No comprehensive online database exists for easily locating manuscript collections around the world. There are, however, several online tools available for locating manuscript collections across multiple participating repositories. A typical entry in one of these databases may include the collection title, the number of years covered, the number of items (or volumes or boxes) contained within the collection, the total linear or cubic feet it occupies, and the name of the repository that holds the collection. Additional detail might state how a particular collection was acquired, and include a brief description of the materials, sometimes specific enough to include names, places, topics, but not always. Search each of these manuscript catalogs by individual name, family surname, the names of neighbors and associates (minister, doctor, store keeper, etc.), geographic localities, and business names.
The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) is a cooperative cataloging program, indexing manuscript materials in over 1,800 well-known and obscure repositories across primarily the United States and Canada.
NUCMC, is operated by the Library of Congress (LOC) and records created (added) since 1986 can be searched for free on their website through the OCLC WorldCat Catalog. NUCMC records created from 1959 to 1985 are available in printed volumes that can be found at major libraries throughout the country. Each published volume of NUCMC contains an index, and cumulative indexes were compiled approximately every five years. Chadwyck-Healey has also published a two-volume set Index to Personal Names in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, 1959-1984 (1988), and a three-volume Index to Subjects and Corporate Names in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, 1959-1984 (1994).
These published indexes can generally be found at major research libraries, including the Family History Library.
When searching for records online in OCLC WorldCat, it is important to know that dates in the NUCMC refer to the date the records were cataloged, 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.
Many records indexed in OCLC include direct links to an online finding aid, if one exists. If you locate a record without a direct link that does not identify the holding institution, select “more on this record” where you will generally find the institution identified in the “notes” area. If it isn’t listed there, then scroll down and select “tagged display” and locate the 040 field toward the top of the record. The letter code (e.g., ERE) located directly following the portion of that letter string marked subfield a ($a) identifies the institution. Enter the code in the OCLC participating institutions page for more information.
ArchiveGrid takes NUCMC a step further, by indexing archival records from WorldCat, along with bringing in information from online collection guides (typically finding aids), from about 1,000 participating institutions – libraries, museums, historical societies, etc. – in mostly North America. There is also a growing number of ArchiveGrid participating institutions from Europe, Asia, Australia, and Central and South America. Until 2012, ArchiveGrid was only available via subscription, but is now available free online for all researchers, and includes over 2 million archival material descriptions.
Social Networks & Archival Context Project (SNAC) is a prototype collaboration of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia, the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, and the California Digital Library. It aims to solve the problem of distributed historical records by serving as an online hub for researchers to locate archival records held by archives, libraries, and other partner organizations worldwide. The site is still in its early stages, but can be searched by the names of individuals, organizations, or families to find “archival context records” of interest.
Archive Finder (a ProQuest company), available by annual subscription to libraries and other institutions, makes all of NUCMC (1959 to the present) fully searchable online, as well as the cumulative index to the National Inventory of Documentary Sources (NIDS) from the United Kingdom/Ireland. You can usually access this database through state libraries, academic/university libraries, and archives—it isn’t really intended for individual subscription.
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.
Locality or Topic Based Archival Consortia
A number of localities, professional organizations, and other groups have formed to improve access to archival collections based around a common theme by utilizing a standard record structure for finding-aid documents known as Encoded Archival Description (EAD), sort of a digital map to archival materials. This is a precursor to the EAC-CPF (Encoded Archival Context-Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families) standard employed by SNAC (above). Examples include:
•Online Archive of California
•Northwest Digital Archives
•Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO)
•History of Medicine Finding Aids Consortium
There is quite a bit of overlap between many of the above mentioned portals to manuscript collections, but each also includes collections not found in the others. It is also important to realize that not all manuscript collections are indexed or included, and even those that are may be cataloged and described with varying degrees of detail, thus the need to also search for manuscript material at the repository level.
Repository-Level Catalogs and Finding Aids
While the previously discussed cataloging programs serve as a gateway to thousands of manuscript collections, there are also many repositories which aren’t included because they use in-house or other alternatives. If you are unable to locate a collection of interest through the various databases previously discussed, or you just want to be thorough, the next step is to check individual online repository catalogs
Identify Potential Repositories
Almost any repository may hold a manuscript collection of interest, but the best place to start is with academic (primarily university) and state libraries, state and local archives, and genealogical and historical societies that cover the state or county in which your ancestor lived. Include local and specialized museums or libraries in your search as well. A variety of online guides can help to locate these repositories, including:•Repositories of Primary Sources – This resource includes links to over 5,000 websites which describe collections of manuscripts, rare books, historical photographs and other research materials.
•Libcat: A Guide to Library Resources on the Internet – Select a state from the map of U.S. states to view a list of academic, government, public, and special libraries in that state. This site is not at all comprehensive, but offers a good starting point.
•Archives & Manuscript Collections – Columbia University’s research guide to locating manuscript and archive collections includes not only information about their own collections, but also a nice list of other major U.S. archival repositories.
Beyond the Local Area
Manuscripts migrated just as much, if not more, than our ancestors did, so the manuscripts you’re looking for to answer a genealogical question may have ended up in a different state, or across the country. Locating these may take some good detective work and a little luck. Searching Google for terms such as your ancestral surnames plus keywords such as “manuscript” may locate partial transcriptions or mentions of certain manuscript materials on sites such as RootsWeb.com, or personal family history pages.
You may also find in-depth descriptions, itemizations, or excerpts from manuscript materials published in back issues of state or local genealogical or historical society journals. For example, a number of original deeds relating to the Youmans family in Beaufort County, South Carolina, were abstracted and published in a 1991 issue of the South Carolina Magazine of Ancestral Research, with a note that the originals were on loan to the Union County Historical Foundation in Union, South Carolina (located on the opposite side of the state from Beaufort County). Abstracts of Beaufort County deeds from the Benjamin S. Williams collection held by Perkins Library at Duke University were posted to the USGenWeb Archives, a collection that included even more original deeds for the Beaufort County Youmans family. And in case you’re wondering what’s so exciting about original deeds, Beaufort County suffered major record loss during the Civil War (especially the deed books), with subsequent losses during Reconstruction.
If your ancestor was involved with a particular occupation, denomination, or even people, use those identifiers as search terms to help locate manuscript collections of possible interest through Google. Collections of material related to the California gold rush and its prospectors, for example, are spread out in repositories across the United States. John S. Hodge, the 4th-great grandfather of Sarah Jessica Parker, is named several times in letters written by his Ohio neighbor John Gish from the gold fields of California where they were both trying their luck. Where would you expect to find this collection of letters by John Gish? Ohio? California? No, in Yale University’s Beinecke Library in Connecticut!
Advanced Search in Library Catalogs
Once you’ve identified a potential repository, begin with a search for their library catalog. Once there, head straight to the “Advanced Search” page, or look for a link specifically to Manuscripts or Special Collections. Many times the Advanced Search page will offer options such as the ability to limit your search by “format” (look for terms such as “archival” or “manuscript”), as well as to limit searches to a particular collection (such as Manuscript Collections). Beyond searching for names, also search for terms such as town and county names, occupations, churches, schools, and businesses.
Go Beyond Catalogs to Finding Aids
Finding aids, or inventories, are detailed descriptions of a collection’s contents to assist in identifying and navigating relevant collections. These may include not only a general overview of the collection, but also be as specific as to name individual documents and people. Many finding aids are available and searchable online, but many others also exist only in paper form, accessible directly from the repository of interest. Finding aids may also only have been created for a subset of a particular repository’s collection. Sometimes finding aids can be found linked to from catalog records, but they may also be located separately on the repository’s website.
Sometimes a Personal Visit or Inquiry is Needed
It is a huge undertaking to catalog centuries worth of non-standard material such as is found in manuscript collections, so online repository catalogs and/or finding aids may not yet include all manuscripts available. If you don’t find what you are looking for in the online catalog, or you want to be comprehensive in your search for holdings on a particular subject or author, also check the repository’s card catalog if you have the opportunity to visit in person. Other information that may only be found through a personal visit, or written inquiry to a librarian or archivist, including in-house finding aids such as inventories, printed collection guides, vertical files, 3-ring binders, loose papers, registers, databases, and even the minds of the librarians and archivists. There is just no substitute for an in-person visit, or written query, when at all possible.
Access to manuscripts and special collections may be somewhat limited, or require advance notice. Check the repository’s website for guidelines, and also confirm by phone before you visit. Some manuscript materials may be stored off-site and require advanced notice to request. You’ll also want to ask if there is a librarian or archivist who specialized in the manuscript collections, or more importantly in your particular area of interest, and what their hours are. Don’t forget to ask about policies such as ID’s, personal computers, scanners, cameras, photocopying, and pencils, plus hours, parking, and nearby eateries.