Psst! Remember to Check Out the Mss!

By Carolyn L. Barkley

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 1,140,000 responses. 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, a Manuscript List from the West Virginia State Library, and the National Library of Australia’s manuscript collection (which included whaling log books for the Barclay). 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.

By 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 effective. 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. 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: 1,366 from type 1; 982, from type 2; and 586 from type 3. 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 to remember that you will not be searching the full NUCMC database.

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?

  • Three manuscript collections in the Cornell University Library offer opportunities to advance my Barclay family research. Each of these entries in NUCMC provides a link to collection’s page on the Cornell Library’s website.


  • 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.
  •  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.
  •  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 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. An image of the letter is available online.
  •  At Wheaton College in Illinois (among several other locations) is a microform version of the 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 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.”
  • A search for Belchertown, Massachusetts returned 104 entries among which is a collection located at the Belchertown Historical Association/Stone House Museum that 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.

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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