Filling in the Gaps with Manuscripts

by Ruby Coleman

Genealogists often need more information on their ancestors than can be found in census, vital records, probates, military records and land records. To fill in the gaps of missing information they look for information in unusual places, often grasping at loose ends to hopefully meet in the middle and add substance to their research.

Information can be found in old letters, slips of papers in books, diaries, journals, business papers and personal papers. These type of records are often kept within families, passed down from generation to generation. In manuscript form many of these records are preserved in repositories such as archives, libraries and societies.

Manuscript collections are untapped resources that can be value in our research. Locating the collections can be time consuming, but worth the effort. If you think your ancestor may have left papers and records, begin checking the area in which he or she lived, particularly where they died.

Are there relatives who may still be in that area? Do they have any documents left by your ancestor? Are they willing to share their treasures or allow you to use them?

Write letters or contact societies and libraries in the area. Ask about their manuscript collection. If their collection is catalogued, is there anything pertaining to your family. Broaden your research by contacting state libraries or archives. Ask the same type of questions. DonŐt forget to also ask about photograph collections. The following are helpful Internet sites for locating repositories.

Some of the state libraries and/or archives have published catalogues pertaining to their manuscript collections. An example of this is Guide to the manuscript collections in the Library of the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, published by the Ohio Historical Society in 1953. Publications such as these are sometimes found in large libraries, particularly with significant genealogical collections. Inquire about these type of publications when communicating with state libraries or archives.

With the popularity of Internet, some of the state libraries and archives are placing searchable information regarding their manuscript collections on-line. For example, The Guide to the Indiana Sesquicentennial Manuscript Project can be found at

A large manuscript collection that continues to be helpful to researchers is the Lyman C. Draper Manuscripts collection. This collection contains Draper's notes and correspondence covering the time period of about 1755-1815. Draper talked to and asked questions of people in the western Carolinas, Virginia, part of Alabama and Georgia and along the Mississippi River Valley and Ohio River Valley.

This monumental collection of 491 volumes is housed in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin at Madison, Wisconsin. It has been microfilmed and is easily available to historical and genealogical researchers.

Many repositories participate in the National Union Catalog Manuscript Collections (NUCMC). This is available in book form at large libraries, on CD-ROM and through the Internet. By all means it should be checked for your areas, topics and surnames of interest.

The National Union Catalog Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) can be found on Internet at Both the OCLC query and the RLIN AMC query should be checked from this site.

The OCLC database contains close to 300,000 records that can be found in archival and manuscript collections at public, university, college and special libraries. The Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN AMC) contains information on over 500,000 records available at the same type of repositories.

Searching NUCMC in both areas takes time. A basic search can be performed by titles, notes and subject. The advanced format allows you to check a variety of fields at once or request not having specific fields checked.

The returned entries will be in a brief format which can be expanded to reveal the nature of the manuscripts, which may range from Bible records to business papers and journals. Within the context of the information will be the location of the manuscript(s). If there has been microfilming done of the collection, this will also be noted.

Keep in mind that these are originals and as such do not circulate on interlibrary loan. If they have been microfilmed, that format may be available to you on interlibrary loan. Normally the manuscripts must be viewed personally. Some repositories may have staff who will do brief checks in their collection. Before assuming how you can or cannot use the manuscripts, contact the repository and ask questions.

There are many books, guides and indexes about manuscript collections in the United States, Canada and other countries being published. More projects will continue to appear on Internet. Be sure to fill in the gaps of your research by locating manuscript collections.

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