Understanding what constitutes a manuscript collection and how such materials are organized and described for patron use is an important prerequisite for a successful research trip. To supplement the information below, see "Collecting, Preserving, and Researching History: A Peek Into the Library of Congress Manuscript Division" and the Getty Research Institute's "Introduction to Archival Organization and Description".
Archives and manuscripts have several different kinds of value. Some, such as illuminated manuscripts, are valued as artifacts or objects of art. Other manuscripts are valued because of their association with a famous person—autographs might be a good example of this. Although some of the division's manuscripts have artifactual and associational value, most are collected for their informational or evidentiary value. They are primary sources, often unique ones, upon which the writing of history may be based. They provide evidence of human activity, and as such, are generated naturally during the course of an individual's or an organization's life.
Scholars often use these manuscripts, however, for purposes unrelated to the reasons the documents were created. For example, an organization may create membership records because it needs to send out renewal notices or match members' skills to specific tasks the group has undertaken. Later, after the group's records are donated to an archival repository, a scholar might examine those same membership lists, not because she intends to send invoices to those individuals but because she is attempting to construct a socioeconomic or regional analysis of women who joined voluntary associations at a given time in our nation's history.
Manuscript librarianship is based on the premise that the context in which documents were created must be understood before their content can be identified, authenticated, and interpreted. This leads to the central organizing principle of archives and manuscripts, which is known as provenance or respect des fonds. This concept assumes that because manuscripts and archives are the organic byproducts of individuals and organizations, they cannot be understood apart from the life of the individual or the functions of the organization that created them. Documents are therefore kept together as discrete units of material linked to their creator or collector. They are not pulled out of their collections and subjectively reorganized according to some other scheme, such as subject matter, geographical focus, or time period.
Moreover, whenever possible, the original order of documents within a collection is also preserved to help validate the documents' authenticity and to reveal as much as possible about the functions and activities that generated them. No single document can be understood in isolation; it is almost always part of a larger file, record series, or collection. These principles of provenance and original order are apparent in the Manuscript Division's arrangement and description of its collections.
As reflections of personal lives, professional careers, and organizational activities, the division's collections contain many different types of manuscripts in every conceivable format—originals, letterpress copies, carbons, and photocopies that have been handwritten, typewritten, and computer-generated during the past three hundred and fifty years. Consider the kinds of material that you or members of your family have accumulated over the years. These would include:
All of the above as well as other types of material are likely to be represented somewhere in the division's holdings, although rarely will one collection contain every type and format. Collectively these materials constitute what is meant by the terms papers and records as used by archivists.
Sometimes when an archivist processes a manuscript collection, certain types of materials that require special equipment or handling, particularly films, sound recordings, rare books, and photographs, may be transferred to another custodial division in the Library, where they are often identified by the same collection name assigned to the manuscript materials. Examples of such transfers are given in the sections relating to Prints and Photographs, Recorded Sound, and Moving Images, but further inquiries would reveal other instances of collateral material spread across Library divisions.
Some types of manuscripts naturally yield more information than others—correspondence, minutes, and diaries come easily to mind—but occasionally a new generation of scholars brings a fresh appreciation to underused document types. For example, students of women's and African American history have made interesting use of previously ignored women's household account books to understand social and economic relationships between men and women, free and slave, within plantation economies, or they have used these sources to illustrate household consumption patterns and to document women's participation in local, regional, and national economic networks.
Although the Manuscript Division may acquire a collection because of an individual's prominence or contribution to one particular field or endeavor, that person's collection may likely contain papers reflecting the full range of their life's activities, including documents relating to:
Some documents in a collection may tell us very little about the person in whose papers they came to reside. Instead they are important for the data they reveal about other people, places, or events. The best examples of this might be:
Although a collection may be centered on a prominent individual or family, it can nevertheless be a source of information on ordinary women and the seemingly mundane events and activities that characterize daily life.
Archivists attempt to convey to researchers the diversity of information in manuscript collections through catalog records and finding aids, but even these access tools cannot identify everything of significance. Scholars must supplement these tools with sound background research on their topics and a willingness to wade through often large and complex bodies of materials.
See the Search Tips section of this guide for additional information about how to locate manuscript material at the Library of Congress.