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About the Manuscript Division

Special Presentation:
Collecting, Preserving, and Researching History: A Peek into the Library of Congress Manuscript Division

Entrance to current Manuscript Division Reading Room Manuscript Reading Room Acid-free containers Processing Victor Gruen Papers

Jump to: History and Background | The Collections | Services | Gifts and Trust Funds

History and Background

The Manuscript Division was one of several "departments" established in 1897 when the Library of Congress moved from the United States Capitol to a separate building nearby. Its staff of four assumed custody of a collection of twenty-five thousand manuscripts which had accumulated throughout the nineteenth century, chiefly through the purchase in 1867 of Peter Force's collection of Americana, the gift in 1882 of Joseph M. Toner's collection relating to George Washington and American medical history, and several small transfers from the Smithsonian Institution. In 1903, by an act of Congress and an executive order, the State Department began transferring historical papers, including several presidential collections, which had been acquired by the federal government.

Despite its early concentration upon acquiring original manuscripts for political, military, and diplomatic history, the division soon broadened its acquisition interests, especially after World War II, to include cultural history, history of science, and the archives of nongovernmental organizations. Its current holdings, nearly sixty million items contained in eleven thousand separate collections, include some of the greatest manuscript treasures of American history and culture. Among these are Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, James Madison's notes on the Federal Convention, George Washington's first inaugural address, the paper tape of the first telegraphic message--"What hath God wrought?", Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and second inaugural address, and Alexander Graham Bell's first drawing of the telephone.

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The Collections

Presidential Papers

Foremost among the division's holdings are the twenty-three groups of presidential papers, ranging in time from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. In 1958 the division began a program to arrange, index, and microfilm all presidential papers in its custody. The program, completed in 1976, made available approximately two million manuscripts on some three thousand reels of microfilm. Accompanying item indexes were published for each collection.

Papers of Government Officials

The papers of a substantial number of government officials, from the eighteenth century to the present, are also in the collections. For example, the papers of approximately half of the individuals who have served as secretary of state are in the Library of Congress. Other cabinet officers, members of the federal judiciary, and chief justices of the United States are equally well represented. The division's military collections range in time from John Paul Jones and George Washington to George S. Patton, Henry H. Arnold, and Alexander M. Haig. Of the five senators judged by a Senate Select Committee in 1959 as the most outstanding in the history of that body, the division holds the papers of four: Henry Clay, Robert M. La Follette, Robert A. Taft, and Daniel Webster. The papers of members of Congress comprise approximately nine hundred collections in the division.

Organizational Records

The Manuscript Division serves as the archival repository for a number of nongovernmental organizations which have significantly affected American life. Several of these are civil rights and economic assistance organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, National Urban League, National American Woman Suffrage Association, National Woman's Party, and Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Other large organizational collections include the records of the League of Women Voters and the American Colonization Society.

Other Papers

The diverse holdings of the division support scholarly research in many aspects of political, cultural, and scientific history. The papers of reformers and nonelected political figures include those of Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, Margaret Sanger, Elizur Wright, and Anna Dickinson. Major collections exist for writers such as Owen Wister, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Archibald MacLeish, Bernard Malamud, and James Michener; for scientists and inventors such as Benjamin Franklin, John W. Draper, Glenn Seaborg, Jacques Loeb, Luther Burbank, J. Robert Oppenheimer, I. I. Rabi, and the Wright brothers; for historians and anthropologists such as Henry Brooks Adams, George Bancroft, and Margaret Mead; for theater and motion picture figures such as Minnie Maddern Fiske, Margaret Webster, Groucho Marx, Lillian Gish, Jessica Tandy, Hume Cronyn, and Joshua Logan; for journalists and publishers such as Horace Greeley, Janet Flanner, William Allen White, the Alsop brothers, Eric Sevareid, Lawrence Spivak, and Hedrick Smith; and for artists and architects such as Samuel F. B. Morse, James A. McNeill Whistler, Daniel Chester French, Adelaide Johnson, John Gutzon de la Mothe Borglum, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

Special Collections

The division's holdings also include a number of manuscript collections formed by individual or institutional collectors. Examples are the Edward S. Harkness Collection of Mexican and Peruvian manuscripts, the Carter G. Woodson Collection of Negro Papers, the Naval Historical Foundation Collection in naval history, the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Walt Whitman Papers, the Sigmund Freud Collection, and the Hans P. Kraus Spanish- American Documents Collection.

Foreign Sources

Since 1905 the Library of Congress has systematically supplemented its original manuscript sources by securing transcriptions, photostatic copies, or microfilm of manuscripts and archives relating to American history that are located in foreign repositories. At present approximately four million manuscripts exist in this form, copied chiefly from archives in those European nations--England, France, Spain, and Germany--which had colonies or large numbers of early settlers in North America. Inventories, arranged by country, repository, and archival file, are available.

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The division provides reference service in person or by correspondence. This assistance is generally provided by professional reference librarians in the reading room, but a staff of historians is also available for private consultation with readers. The historians' areas of specialization are early American history (to 1825), the National period (to 1861), Civil War and Reconstruction (to 1900), twentieth-century political history, cultural and literary history, African-American history and culture, and Library of Congress archives and history.

Manuscripts on microfilm may be requested through the interlibrary loan system, but the division reserves the right to deny requests for microfilm of collections which are stored off- site or for which there are no master negatives. Photostats and microfilm for which the division does not hold the negative may not circulate outside the reading room.

Readers may purchase photocopies, photographs, or microfilm of manuscripts through the Library's Photoduplication Service. Unbound manuscripts may be reproduced, subject to copyright and other restrictions, on the coin-operated photocopy machines in the Manuscript Reading Room.

The Library's online catalog system provides current bibliographical and cataloging information on all of the division's holdings. Finding aids or registers describe the scope, content, and arrangement of its organized collections. Registers of special interest are published by the Library for limited circulation. Unpublished registers may be photocopied on request. Many finding aids are also available online.

A report on manuscript acquisitions is published annually by the Library of Congress. Specialized guides, registers, presidential indexes, and other publications can be identified in Library of Congress Publications in Print and in the list of publications contained in the annual acquisitions report.

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Gifts and Trust Funds

Through the generosity of countless donors, the Manuscript Division has amassed the world's finest collection of historical manuscripts relating to American history. Most of the division's collections were received as gifts or deposits. Occasionally funds for processing a collection accompanied the donation of papers, as was the case with the Naval Historical Foundation Collection and the papers of Katie Louchheim, Clare Boothe Luce, and Henry Luce to name a few. The division has also received grants to microfilm collections, including support from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Gifts and bequests have likewise enabled the division to purchase manuscript materials. The generosity of Charles E. Feinberg, Paul Mellon, and Joseph and Elizabeth Pennell permitted the acquisition of manuscripts relating to Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, and James McNeill Whistler, respectively. The acquisition and reproduction of manuscript material in European repositories, as well as the preservation and treatment of source material in American history, have been made possible through the bequest of James B. Wilbur.

The William E. Benjamin Fund and subsequently the Samuel Chester Reid Fund have allowed the division to cosponsor with the American Historical Association the J. Franklin Jameson Fellowship, which is awarded annually to a young historian interested in conducting research in the Library's collections. A generous grant from the Ford Foundation provided the start-up funds for the division's documentary editing project, Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789.

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  October 14, 2010
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