What is a manuscript collection or sometimes referred to as a special collection? Simply, they are the unpublished papers of a person, group, or organization. But, in reality a manuscript collection can include so much more than just papers, they may include, thesis/dissertations, photograph albums, ephemera, letters, diaries/journals, business documents, scrapbooks, birthday and autograph books, vital record substitutes, maps, court records, an author's research notes, correspondence and so much more.
Manuscripts may be from a government entity or official, a business, a non-profit group, religious organization, society, institution, membership group, individual, etc. They may be located at a public, private, state, or university library as well as a county, state, or organization archive or historical/genealogical society or museum.
In researching a manuscript collection, there are two important things to remember. First, is that you want to get away from the genealogists usual technique, strictly searching by an ancestor's surname. You want also to research by looking for manuscripts that deal with your ancestor's locality, community, neighbors, religion, or occupation. Your ancestor's writings may not be left to a library but the journal of someone who lived in the community may have been.
Secondly, collections usually contain finding aids that assist you in searching the collections. Don't just conduct a keyword or subject search like you are use to: consult the finding aid for information about the collection and its contents.
Archives that hold manuscript collections may have special rules about their use, rules that would be different from the rules of using circulating books at a library. Make sure you consult their website for any rules or inquire with the librarian in charge of the collection. When using an archive or special collection, consider the following:
• Call first and ask what restrictions or rules there might be for using the archive or the collections. For example, some collections might be restricted access or you might need a special "reader's card."
• If the archive is far from your home, see if there is another way to access the collections. For example, has the collection been microfilmed and sold to other repositories near you? Will the archive do a quick look up for you or can you send you request and payment for them to make copies and mail them.
• Ask about their photocopy policy. Some archives might let you photocopy documents yourself, others may require that you provide them with a list and they will mail it to you at a later date. Some documents might be too fragile to copy and you will have to transcribe them.
• Online archive/library catalogs many times have finding aids for their special collections. Consult these to better understand how to conduct a search.
There are various ways to find manuscript and special collections. One of the best known is through the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). You can search NUCMC by subject or surname or locality. Hits will provide you with the name of the item and where it is located. Once you have that information, consult that repository's library or special collections catalog for more information.
In some cases, special collections might be digitized and be available online or they may be microfilmed, but largely for these collections you need to be onsite to view. If you are unable to travel to the collections location, you may want to consider hiring a local genealogist to search the collection for you. In the case where a collection is housed at a university library, you may be able to find a student who can make copies for you at a nominal charge.
Additional websites that might assist you in researching collections include:
Manuscript and Archive Collections in the United States
Repositories of Primary Sources
Learning Historical Research