Does Your Next (or First) Book Lie Here?

The Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress is an impressive place. Researchers pore over sheets of paper, some with spidery penmanship, others typed, some looked at for the first time in decades. More of the same awaits them on wooden carts near their desks.

I have used Civil War manuscripts, reading the papers of a handful of people who spent time in Alexandria during the Civil War. I identified them through an old, but still invaluable research guide.

But I never had a proper overview of the division so I attended an orientation session last Saturday.

The Library defines a manuscript as "an unpublished primary source document," covering letters, diaries, drawings, scrapbooks, and various other bits and pieces.  The Manuscript Division contains:

  • More than 11,600 collections, which range from a single piece of paper to the 3 million items in the largest collection (that of the NAACP)
  • A "rough draught" of the Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson with handwritten changes by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin
  • Hundreds of diaries and letters of people famous and not--60 million individual items in all
  • A very small percentage of digitized items--most remain paper-only records.
Library of Congress image

Library of Congress image

Is your next inspiration lying there? Maybe a new angle on a familiar subject, or someone no one has researched before? (For theatre and film lovers, the workshop leader told us that the papers of Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn are recent additions, but he does not recall anyone checking them out.)


You don't have to be an academic or have a specific assignment. Yes, the room seems intimidating because everyone looks so serious and driven. Some are, but the rest are normal people like us. Within reason, you can request to see as many collections as you would like. If the collection is not useful or interesting after all, you don't have to feel guilty.

But you'll make the best use of your and the staff's time by doing some prep work.

A Few Ideas To Start

  • Starting from the lefthand column of the Manuscript Reading Room's website (, go to the "recently processed collections" and "lists of recent acquisitions" (which only goes up to 2009) for a look-see for possible ideas to pursue.
  • Again along that lefthand column, spend some time with the Finding Aids, which contains biographical information about the subject and an inventory of the contents of the collection. The division has about 2,000 Finding Aids. When you click on Finding Aids, you will see an alphabetized list and, within the text, "search across all finding aids." You can use keywords to search for topics of interest across the collections. (Note: you are searching the Finding Aids, not the individual pieces of paper.)
  • After you have spent some time online and have a few ideas, call the division to see how to access the materials you want. Some are stored off-site or have restrictions, so they urge phone calls before visits.
  • If you don't have a reader's identification card, you need to go through a short registration in the Madison building, which is also where the Manuscript Reading Room is located. You'll have to go through an additional short orientation to learn the rules of the Manuscript Room.
  • The room is open Monday to Saturday, 8:30 to 5. You can bring electronic devices into the Room, but have to leave most everything else in a locker near the door. You can take pictures of materials or use their scanners, but you can't do your own scanning.

Right now I am using the Clara Barton papers from the Manuscript Division, one of the few collections that has been digitized (or at least the parts I need). Yes, I welcome the convenience, but I also miss the hands-on experience of an expedition to the library and turning pages, wondering if the next one will hold the gem I seek.

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