What Exactly Is a Manuscript?

February 20, 2021

We ran an article on manuscript finding aids in Ohio Genealogy News recently, but we really did not define the word manuscript. It can mean different things at different institutions. What do we really mean by the word?

The Society of American Archivists (SAA) offers three variants – a handwritten document; an unpublished document; or an author’s draft submitted for publication. However, the term manuscript might be defined more loosely in a genealogical archive – a collection of someone’s research papers; ancestor charts; court abstracts; photographs; a transcription of a cemetery; a surname file; news clippings dealing with a particular family or community; or even an object such as a Bible with its family records between the Old and New Testaments.

Is a photocopy a manuscript? Maybe, or maybe not. I have a photocopy of a portrait of my ancestor Betsey (Edmondson) McIntosh (1797-1880) that I secured from a now deceased cousin in the 1980s. If that original large ornately-framed tintype has been pitched, or if it has been sold at an antique mall with no identification, hasn’t my photocopy gained much more importance?

The archivist must appraise newly acquired material as it is processed. This is often called the “rough sort” and it can go quickly. What is kept really depends on the procedures put in place by the institution and its staff. Every pass of the hand on a document requires a decision – keep or toss. Many groups do only keep those older handwritten documents. A few value the compilations of our ancestor’s story – the ancestor chart and family group sheet – and perhaps the photocopies and abstracts of the court records that we used to establish our facts. Very few institutions hold on to computer printouts from the variety of online venues – items that can be retrieved easily by the next family genealogist.

The appraisal decision is very similar to that made by a librarian when they purchase a book. Is this something that our patrons would value? Does it fit our library’s overall collection development mission? Is the work accurate? How unique is it? Rather, could the same patron easily access the book on their desktop at home?

The important thing with a manuscript is that the content be preserved, whether it be a treasured handwritten Civil War letter or a photocopy of an original image now lost to time. The value to its users is the strength of any archival collection.

Tom Neel, OGS Library Director