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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Search Tips

When searching for manuscript material in the Library of Congress Online Catalog, keep in mind the following options and strategies:

  • Limit your search to manuscript records only, or search for manuscript material in conjunction with a broader search of the Library's books and other formats.
  • Become familiar with the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH). The search strategies and subject terms used in locating manuscript records are the same as those for books and other general collections.
  • Search not only by name, title, and subject, but also keyword. Various types of keyword searches are useful for locating words and phrases in the summary scope and content notes of manuscript records, including the “natural language” version of words for which the arcane subject headings may not be readily apparent.
  • Keyword searching is also a good way of finding collections that contain certain types of manuscript material that are sometimes themselves the focus of a research project, such as diaries, ships' logs, speeches, account books, and so on.
  • Cast a wide net. For example, when researching an individual, search not only for that person's name but also for the names of family members, friends, colleagues, organizations, and anyone else with whom he or she may have corresponded.
  • Searches by occupation and subject are also helpful in identifying collections related to the individual you are researching.
  • Locating individuals by their religious or ethnic identities is often difficult, unless those aspects of people's lives so permeated their papers as to be obvious subject headings to the processing archivist or cataloger. When searching for collections by race or ethnicity of the creator, you may find it helpful to supplement your catalog search with a search of available printed guides. See the Print Guides & Access Tools section of this guide for information about using printed guides.

Keep in mind that when doing manuscript research, you will likely need to consult collections not because of any interest per se in the creator of those materials but because the creator may have had an association with events and activities that are the real focus of your research. The catalog record, however, cannot describe the entire scope and diversity of the creator's experiences, nor can it identify all of the people, events, or subjects represented in a given collection. It distills in a few paragraphs the information contained in a multipage finding aid, which in turn is only a summary description of the documents that make up the collection. Even when a search of the catalog is unpromising, a follow-up search of collection finding aids may yield results.

Searching the Library of Congress Catalog

Every collection held in the Manuscript Division is represented by a record in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Each catalog record includes information on the following:

  • Title or creator of the collection
  • Size, dates, and type of material
  • Data about the person or organization featured in the collection
  • Brief summary of the collection's scope and content
  • Controlled listing of the principal subjects and people represented

The catalog is updated daily and may be accessed from terminals throughout the Library and from remote locations through the Internet. As with any catalog, the amount of information given for each collection is limited and touches only on the major topics and correspondents. Primarily a browsing device, the catalog is useful for locating the most likely sources on a topic and for providing an overview of the division's holdings.

When searching in the Library of Congress Online Catalog, you can limit your search results to materials held by the Manuscript Division by selecting "Advanced Search", and then "Add Limits", and finally "Manuscript" under "Location in the Library".(see screenshot below).

Screen shot of Library of Congress catalog page showing how you can limit the location to the Manuscript Division

Authorized subject headings can be useful when searching in online catalogs. Subject headings include standardized topics, names, places, titles, and forms/genres of material. Subject headings like those listed below can help researchers get started and to perform searches in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

Searching Finding Aids

A finding aid provides a detailed description of a collection by summarizing the overall scope of the content, conveying details about the individuals and organizations involved, and listing box and folder headings. Sometimes called inventories or registers, finding aids are created by division archivists in the course of processing a collection. They rarely describe every item individually but rather embody the archival view of a manuscript collection as groups of related documents that are arranged and analyzed collectively in an effort to preserve their context and reflect their provenance and the relationship between items (see the Understanding Manuscripts section of this guide). Some finding aids may include partial or complete name indexes to the correspondence contained in the collection. Special service conditions are noted, including terms under which the collection may be accessed or copied. Links are provided to digitized content, when available. When available, a link to the finding aid is available in the catalog record for a collection. An alphabetical list of the Manuscript Division's finding aids may be found on the Manuscript Reading Room's webpage.

Detailed finding guides exist for virtually all of the division's larger collections. The vast majority of these are available online and links to the finding aid may be found in the catalog record for the collection. A list of links to Finding Aids available online may also be found on the Manuscript Reading Room's website, and printed copies of all finding aids are available in the Manuscript Reading Room.

Searching the digital versions using the online finding aids search tool also allows researchers to uncover more quickly than before the names of people, places, groups, and subjects that do not appear in the abbreviated catalog records. Yet even with such enhancements, finding guides are still only aids to research. They cannot substitute for a scholar's detailed examination of the actual papers.

See the table below for a description of each section found in a finding aid.

Section in Finding Aid Definition
Collection Summary An overview of the collection, giving research information such as the full title, the dates the collection content covers, the language(s) the collection is in, the location it's stored, and a summary of collection contents.
Selected Search Terms The terms listed under this heading have been used to index the description of a collection in the Library's online catalog. They are grouped by name of person or organization, by subject or location, and by occupation. They are listed alphabetically within each section.
Administrative Information Administrative information about the source or creator of the collection, the custodial history of the documents, and the conditions under which they may be consulted, reproduced, or quoted.
Biographical Note Offers broader historical context of the collection and often provides a timeline of important events that relate to the collection's content.
Scope and Content Note Provides a history of the relevant events relating to the collection, describes the arrangement of the collection, the major topics covered, and any notable gaps or weaknesses in the collection, and highlights notable items or correspondents in the collection.
Arrangement/Organization of the Papers Describes the arrangement of the collection as processed by archivists.
Description of Series

Outlines the major groups or series of papers.

Container List

Usually in hierarchical outline form, identifies in progressive detail the contents of the papers together with the corresponding microfilm film reel number or container number of each file. Links to digital content are provided when available.

Keyword search Library of Congress finding aids at

When you open, all Library of Congress finding aids are searched by default. Researchers can narrow their search to finding aids for manuscript collections only. Find the drop-down menu, "Within Library of Congress Collections", select "Manuscript" to search only Manuscript Division collections.

Keyword Search

Search By Keyword Across All LC Finding Aids

  • Enter your search terms in the search box on the Search Finding Aids page. Choose whether to search all words (default option), any words, or the words in your query as a single phrase.
  • You may also search by the Library's unique finding aid identifier -- the last component of the finding aid handle (for example, ms009304 in the handle hdl:loc.mss/eadmss.ms009304).
  • From the Search Results page, select a brief results entry. A full display of the finding aid opens in a new browser window or tab. Click on Show search terms in context in a brief results entry to open the full display of the finding aid at the Search Results tab.

Search By Keyword Within One LC Finding Aid

  • From a full finding aid display, you can search within that finding aid by entering search terms in the search box labeled "Search this Finding Aid." Search results appear in the Search Results tab. Click on a relevance ranked link to open the appropriate finding aid section in a new browser tab or window.

Formatting Keyword Search Terms

  • Diacritics: Accent marks can be used in keyword searches.
  • To find all words -- whether or not they contain diacritics -- do not use diacritics in your search terms. For example, search search Leon to find both Léon and Leon. To find only words containing diacritics, include the diacritics in your search term. For example, search Pułaski to find Pułaski but not Pulaski. Right and left half-ligatures and half-tildes are converted to spaces. Therefore, to search these terms as keywords, the single word containing these diacritics must instead be treated as a phrase. For example, search the phrase "I U rii" to find I︠U︡riĭ For controlled terms that include half-ligatures and half-tildes, we recommend you use Browse to find names, titles, and subjects containing these diacritics.
  • Upper and Lower Case Letters: Keyword searches ignore whether you use upper or lower case letters.
  • Punctuation: Most punctuation (such as periods, commas, and quotation marks) is ignored in keyword searches. Apostrophes and hyphens are converted to spaces.
  • Special Characters: Characters such as ampersands and dollar signs can be used in keyword searches.

Limiting Keyword Searches

By Specific Finding Aid Sections

  • By default, the complete finding aid is searched. You have two additional options:
  • Select Collection Overview to search information in the narrative part of a finding aid. Collection Overview limits your search to information about Library collections and how they can be used. It includes collection creators and provenance, as well as conditions of access and use, arrangement of the collection, index terms, and other helpful administrative information.
  • Select Contents List to search a detailed listing of contents of the collection components. This does not include searching any texts in the collection itself.