Many of the country's earliest leaders recognized the historical significance of their papers, none more so than Thomas Jefferson, who in 1823 wrote that it was "the duty of every good citizen to use all the opportunities, which occur to him, for preserving documents relating to the history of our country."1 Jefferson meticulously cared for his own papers and actively collected documents relating to the early history of Virginia and the United States. In fact, when Congress purchased Jefferson's library in 1815 to replace the earlier library burned by British troops during the War of 1812, important manuscript records were included among the books and maps. These earliest manuscripts acquired by the Library of Congress concerned the Virginia Company of London, the commercial body that founded—and for a short time governed—the oldest English-speaking colony in North America, Jefferson's beloved commonwealth of Virginia.
After Jefferson's death, the Library purchased at auction in 1829 the president's remaining collection of Virginia Company records. In the 164 years since the second Jefferson acquisition, the Library has amassed an unparalleled collection of manuscripts. Some of these are housed in the Library's music, rare book, and area studies divisions, but most are in the custody of the Manuscript Division, one of the original departments established in 1897, when the Library moved across the street from its cramped quarters in the United States Capitol to its own magnificent new structure, later appropriately named the Thomas Jefferson Building.
The first chief of the Manuscript Division estimated that the size of his collections was twenty-five thousand items. As of 2019, the division holds twelve thousand collections containing more than seventy million items. These collections document all aspects of American history and culture and include some of the nation's greatest manuscript treasures. Among these are Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, James Madison's notes on the Constitutional Convention, the paper tape of the first telegraphic message, Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Alexander Graham Bell's first drawing of the telephone, and similar items recording dramatic events in the nation's history. Represented are the papers of most of the presidents of the United States, their Cabinet ministers, many of their colleagues and adversaries in the Senate and House of Representatives, members of the Supreme Court and federal judiciary, military officers and diplomats, artists and writers, scientists and inventors, and other prominent Americans whose lives reflect our country's evolution.
The overwhelming majority of the division's collections comprise the personal papers of individuals and families. They differ from the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, which maintains the official records of the United States government. The most interesting of the Manuscript Division collections relate not only to individuals' professional or political careers but reflect their private lives, suggesting how their origins, family relationships, personal experiences, motivations, prejudices, and humor affected their public behavior and activities. As a record of the whole person, these collections contain many different types of manuscripts. Included are diaries, correspondence (both incoming and copies of outgoing letters), notebooks, accounts, logs, scrapbooks, press clippings, subject files, photographs, and other documents in every conceivable form—handwritten and typewritten, originals, carbons, letterpress copies, microfilm, and electronic files. When the poet Carl Sandburg wrote about the private Lincoln collection of Oliver Barrett, he could just as easily have been describing the papers in the Manuscript Division:
Many kinds of paper here—heavy parchment and vellum engrossed—legal cap—letter and note paper—scrap—newsprint of the later era now beginning to disintegrate—rag paper of the previous generation, tough and fibrous and good for centuries to come with its register of handwriting or printing—quiet paper that whispers its tender message, or groaning, roaring paper that for those of imagination carries its own grief or elation of a vanished hour and day. Paper, if you please, sir or madam, as soundless as hushed footfalls on silent snow.2
Although interesting as artifacts, the real worth of the manuscripts in the Library of Congress lies in their evidentiary value. They are the primary sources upon which the writing of history is based. They permit scholars to reconstruct and understand the past, interpret the national character, and set the record straight about events and personalities often shrouded in mystery and steeped in controversy. The historical value of the Library's manuscripts is enhanced by their scope, size, and concentration in one place. A scholar planning initially to consult one collection will be drawn to a complementary collection containing documents which clarify, enhance, and contradict the first set of manuscripts. It is rare for patrons to leave the Manuscript Division without finding something relevant to their research. Moreover, the Library's manuscripts are housed in immediate proximity to the institution's unsurpassed collections of books, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, maps, motion pictures, charts, prints, sound recordings, and photographs that can supplement the scholar's manuscript research.
Manuscripts are normally acquired by the Library of Congress in one of three ways: purchase, gift, or copyright deposit. Many of the earliest acquisitions were purchased by the Library directly or transferred from other government agencies. For example, in 1867 Congress appropriated $100,000 to purchase the Peter Force Papers, one of the nation's first great privately assembled manuscript collections. A year earlier, Dolley Madison's papers had been transferred from the Smithsonian Institution, and in 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order directing the transfer to the Manuscript Division of the State Department's historical archives. Roosevelt's action, one of the most significant in the division's history, brought to the Library the major corpus of the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe, as well as large bodies of the papers of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Funds established by private benefactors also permitted the Library to purchase manuscripts unobtainable within the budget appropriated by Congress, including the papers of poet Walt Whitman, artist James A. McNeill Whistler, and psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, as well as copies of records in foreign repositories relating to American history.
Notwithstanding these notable purchases, most of the Manuscript Division's acquisitions in the twentieth century have been donated or, in the case of microfilm, acquired through copyright deposit. Many prominent Americans have accepted the division's invitation to donate their papers to the national library during their lifetimes. Other collections have been bequeathed or received as gifts from heirs. Only through the generosity of countless donors has the Manuscript Division amassed one of the world's finest collections of historical manuscripts. As such, our holdings are a testament to the patriotism of the American people.
Once acquired, an expert processing staff sorts, arranges, and describes incoming collections--occasionally discovering in the process locks of hair, articles of clothing, revolvers, jewelry, pressed flowers, pieces of wedding cakes, badges, pins, and other oddities accidently donated with the manuscripts. The organized collections are stored in acid-free folders within similarly treated containers to retard deterioration. The containers are then shelved in secure, fireproof stacks with temperature and humidity controls. Damaged items are repaired and restored by talented and knowledgeable specialists in the Library's state-of- the-art conservation facilities.
The ease with which a collection is organized depends upon the condition and order of the manuscripts upon receipt. Many present- day archivists can appreciate former President Madison's despair that the "tedious" arrangement of his papers was absorbing more of his time than anticipated, interfering, he added, with the enjoyment of his retirement.3 During the third winter that her husband devoted to his manuscripts, Dolley Madison restlessly noted that "the business seems to accumulate as he proceeds, so that it might outlast my patience, and yet I cannot press him to forsake a duty so important, or find it in my heart to leave him during its fulfillment."4 Careful arrangement and accurate description are indeed time-consuming and important tasks. Both contribute to a collection's preservation, security, and accessibility for research use.
Once collections are processed, they are made available within established guidelines to interested scholars in the Manuscript Division Reading Room. Professional librarians and subject specialists are available to advise patrons about new avenues of research, direct them to relevant source materials, and answer reference queries about the division's holdings.
Mining the treasures of the Manuscript Division is a lifelong pursuit for researchers and staff alike. Longtime employees are constantly amazed by both the documented riches and the unexpected finds. The thrill of discovering the unknown, the excitement of handling famous documents, and the feeling of connectedness with people and events of the past are among the most satisfying aspects of archival work. Through the Library's diverse collection of manuscripts, history comes alive, attaining an immediacy that is both unique and rewarding for anyone who ventures into the Manuscript Division's holdings. Letters and diaries--from both the recent and the distant past--speak of a nation's hopes, disappointments, and accomplishments. The style and modes of expression differ markedly, but whether eloquent or crude, these manuscripts transport the reader to a time and place that may be radically different from the present or, conversely, seem either frighteningly or comfortingly familiar. By collecting, preserving, and making available for research use documents of the American past, the Manuscript Division promotes the pursuit of knowledge that is central to all great civilizations. We are proud to serve as custodians of the nation's historical legacy and invite you to learn more about the division's holdings in the following pages.
James H Hutson
Chief, Manuscript Division