Manuscripts – Don’t Ignore Such Valuable Resources

 By: Carolyn L. Barkley

This article was first published in January 2009. What follows here is an expanded version of that article. The increase in the number of manuscript collections identified in online searches completed in January 2011, just two years after the first article was written, underlines the need to revisit online resources to discover information added since the completion of earlier searches.

Manuscript collections can be instrumental in helping researchers locate original documents. We often overlook them, however, depriving us of a richer understanding of our research objectives. We can remedy this omission by learning how to locate manuscript collections and how to identify the materials they contain.

For many individuals, a first research step is to “Google” a topic. Unfortunately, a Google search for “manuscript collections” results in an estimated 7,300,000 responses. (When this article was first drafted in January 2009, the total number of responses was 1,140,000!) That being said, among the first ten responses are links for the manuscript collections at the University of Chicago Library, Cornell University’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Columbia University’s Archives and Manuscript Collections, and the Manuscript List from the West Virginia State Library. You could choose to search various sites looking for a collection dealing with a specific individual (or surname) – but it would take forever and you would have to learn the idiosyncrasies of each search location. Luckily, better search strategies exist.

As early as the 1940s, a Library of Congress committee began talking about developing a union catalog of manuscripts to assist researchers. Active planning began in 1951 with a $200,000 grant from the Council on Library Resources, Inc. The resource was named the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), pronounced “nuckmuck.” The scope of the catalog included “large groups of papers, manuscripts or typescripts of memoranda, diaries, accounts, log books, drafts, etc.” Collections are usually from a “common source and are formed by or around an individual, family or corporate entity, or devoted to a single theme.” These collections must be in a public or “quasi-public” repository that regularly admits researchers. Entries include a main entry, title, physical description, location, scope, content and other information as available, and subject headings.

Just ten years later, in 1961, the union list included 7,300 manuscript collections in 400 repositories. Between 1959 and 1993, NUCMC was published in twenty-nine printed volumes that describe 72,300 collections in 1,406 repositories. Although now out-of-print, these printed volumes and their associated indices are often available at larger public libraries, archives and research institutions. (They continue to be available on microfilm from the Library of Congress Photoduplication Service at $35.00 per reel.)

Using these volumes, however, poses the same problem inherent in any book catalog – the need to locate appropriate indices and check multiple volumes in order to conduct a thorough search. With these printed NUCMC volumes, the indices are particularly important as the entries are arranged by an assigned number. Your search in the printed volumes will be time consuming, and volumes (always, the specific volume you need) will be missing from the shelf. Luckily, technology has come to the rescue.

Items added to NUCMC since 1986 are available on-line through OCLC’s WorldCat (FirstSearch). As many libraries do not offer customer access to WorldCat, the Library of Congress provides a free web interface allowing you to search archival and manuscript collection entries, nearly 1.5 million items. (NOTE: This interface does not provide full access to WorldCat). Several search options are available at the NUCMC portal, but I strongly urge you to read the “Searching Instructions and Hints” before you begin to search in order to make your efforts more productive. Several search strategies are available: (1) a simple search (word list) from titles, notes and subject fields; (2) a simple search (word list) of all name fields; (3) a simple search (“left anchored phrase”) of all name fields; and (4) an advanced search which allows Boolean searching. The best rule of thumb is to be as specific as possible to avoid having to scroll through items that do not pertain to your research – and remember that you are not searching the full OCLC/WorldCat database, but only entries that are located in archival and manuscript collections, those of mixed material (two or more types of bibliographic materials) and bibliographic material described using archival descriptive [cataloging] rules.

The entire electronic NUCMC is available through PROQUEST’s subscription database, Archives USA. If your local library does not subscribe to ArchivesUSA, you may access this database at the National Archives, either in Washington, D.C., or at any of its regional facilities.

What was I able to locate in my sample searches? As always, I tried a Barclay surname search and found that I got a different number of responses depending on which search type I chose: 1,928 (up from 1,366 in 2009) from type 1; 1,413 (up from 982 in 2009) from type 2; and 901 (up from 586 in 2009) from type 3.

  • I located three manuscript collections housed in the Cornell University Library which offer opportunities to advance my Barclay family research.


  • A manuscript collection entitled “Guide to the Leander Crawford Purdy and Louisa (Canfield), Collectors, Family Papers, 1738-1925.” A correspondent to the Barclay Genealogical Database, maintained by Clan Barclay International, submitted his Barclay family information almost twenty-years ago. From his submission, I know that Leander Crawford Purdy was the son of Nancy Agnes Barclay (1808-1902), in turn the daughter of Samuel Barkley (1743-1814) and Nancy Agnes McCurdy (1764-1844). The abstract for the collection indicates that while it focuses on the Canfield, Crawford and Purdy families, it also has items related to the Barclay, Ketcham, and Little families. Materials in the collection include indentures, wills, deeds, and other legal documents, surveyors’ notations, estate settlements, investment and personal accounts, a farm and store account book, a diary, and more. The “container list” is not yet available online.
  • In the Van Schaick Family Papers, 1732-1846, I identified two receipts, one dated 1806 regarding the last will and testament of Christina van Schaick, and one dated 1808 regarding a map of one square in Fox Street by J. Barclay. Both items are of interest as I already know that some researchers say that there was a Van Schaick/Barclay marriage in the Albany, New York area in 1685. A guide with “container list” describing the individual contents of the collection is available online.
  • The Alvin Howard Sanders Papers, ca. 1839-1925, include a postcard portrait of Captain [Robert] Barclay [Barclay Allardice] of Ury, known as the “Great Pedestrian,” who was celebrated for walking 1,000 miles??? in 1,000 hours. The container list also notes that Barclay was the father of Shorthorn breeding in North Scotland. From the abstract I learned that Sanders was the editor of The Breeder’s Gazette and worked in livestock breeding, hence his interest in Barclay. A “container list” is available online.


  • At the University of California/Berkeley Library, the David Rumsey Map Collection includes a letter from J. H. Colton to G. C. Barclay (of 71 Water Street, New York), dated 26 February 1864, that discusses the use of Colton’s maps as advertisements for Barclay.


  • At Wheaton College in Illinois (among several other locations) is a microform version of Julia Ann Barclay’s correspondence between 1854 and 1877. The original correspondence is held in Nashville, Tennessee by the Disciples of Christ Historical Society. This collection is of interest to me as a Barclay family in Charlottesville and Scottsville, Virginia (and for a brief time owners of Monticello) were very involved in the Disciples of Christ.


  • A 2009 search for “Nelson County Virginia” yielded 447 responses, among which were Bible records for specific families in the county, Civil War maps by Jedediah Hotchkiss, and family papers such as the correspondence between Mary Elizabeth Henderson Caperton, of Nelson County, Va., written “while staying with her sister-in-law, Sarah Ann Caperton Preston, in Blacksburg, Va., to her husband, George Henry Caperton, soldier with a Virginia regiment during the Civil War, concerning various members of the Preston family, fears of a slave rebellion, and Dr. Harvy Black; together with diary (1861) of George Henry Caperton. For some reason, I could not duplicate this search two years later. I was able to search successfully for Nelson County (Va.) and find entries for Sheriff’s Account Books (1811-1837), a Tax Book (1812-1848), among others. An advanced search for Nelson County and Virginia identified 148 responses including William Cabell’s Commonplace Books (1769-1795), ledgers from Robert Rives general merchandise store at Warminster (1792-93), James C. Powell’s daybook from his dry goods store at Faber’s Mills (1837-1887), a Massey Family Bible record (1790s-1922), and Tye River and Blue Ridge Turnpike Company records (1822-1853).
  • A search for Belchertown returned 108 entries (104 in 2009), featuring a collection of town records from 1829 to 1886 which includes a record book (1829-1860) with marriages and tax valuations; death certificates (1878-1882); and a record of births from 1882-1886. A finding aid is available on the museum’s website. Please note that refining the search to “Belchertown Massachusetts” narrowed the entries found to 94.

A new feature of the NUCMC site is entitled The Documentary Heritage of the Civil War, a five-year project presented as part of the nation’s sesqui-centennial observance of the Civil War. Part I is currently available: “A Southern Confederacy will be Formed!” which presents letters and diary entries concerning the election of Abraham Lincoln, the secession crisis, the outbreak of hostilities, mobilizing for war, and foreign public opinion.  “Succeeding years will feature personal narratives of members of the Union and Confederate armed forces (2012); the sesquicentennial of the Emancipation Proclamation and the African American experience from slavery to the end of the war (2013); the home front, women in the war, the role of charitable organizations, economic aspects of the war, and patriotic societies (2014); and the sesquicentennial of the death of Abraham Lincoln, Reconstruction, Confederate exiles, war monuments and the rise of veterans’ organizations (2015).”

How do I locate the manuscript after I’ve identified it?

Once you have identified a specific manuscript of interest from the list of collections, click on “more on this record.” Next, choose “tagged display.” You can now pretend that you are a library or archival cataloger and consult the “040 field” toward the top of the record. You will see a letter code in subfield “a,” denoted by ($a). For example, the Belchertown records for 1829-1886, have a letter code of “MaBeHA.” Now choose the Participating Institutions link located on the search page and enter the letter code. I was unable to identify “MaBeHA” using this methodyou’re your experience is the same, you are then directed to choose the MARC Code List for Organizations link provided on the same page. I, however, could not make it “initialize,” but was able to Google the list at By entering the code MaBeHA, I was able to determine that the owning institution was the Belchertown Historical Association/Stone House Museum.

Manuscripts can also be identified in other (print) sources at national, state and county levels. Examples include Guide to Private Manuscript Collections in the North Carolina State Archives 3rd. rev. ed. (N.C. Dept. of Cultural Resources, Div. of Archives and History, 1999); Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1st comprehensive ed., (The Society, 2010); Rockbridge County, Virginia, Manuscripts: A Guide to Collections in the United States (Rockbridge Historical Society, 1998); and the several volumes of New York Historical Manuscripts (Genealogical Publishing Co.).  In addition, online sources may assist you in locating manuscript information. A list of Repositories of Primary Sources in the Eastern United States and Canada is one such source, as is the web page for the Manuscript Reading Room at the Library of Congress.

Manuscript collections offer the opportunity to enhance our understanding of individuals and locations – we just need to locate them and mine them for their riches. The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) is a significant resource providing access to information that otherwise would remain unknown to us. I hope you’ll explore it soon.


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