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Manuscripts in the Rare Books & Manuscripts Department: How to Find


The BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department is a major repository of historically significant manuscripts and archives. Collections in the department contain materials that date from the ancient and medieval periods through the modern era.

What is a manuscript?

By definition, a manuscript is a handwritten document (manu=hand; script=writing). Manuscripts can take many forms, from letters, to receipts, to diaries, to drafts of literary works, and beyond. If it is written by hand, it is a manuscript. 

In the Rare Books and Manuscripts department, we take an even wider view. For the purposes of classifying and organizing our collections, we consider almost anything that is not published to be a manuscript. BPL manuscript collections therefore contain postcards, photocopies, archives (which often include printed matter), scrapbooks, photo albums; government, business, and organizational records; hand-drawn maps, surveys, original works of art, printed forms filled out by hand, and many other kinds of materials.

(Image) A Harvard student's handwritten copy of Judah Monis' then-unpublished Hebrew grammar, created in 1722 (MS q Am.1607)

Finding Manuscripts

There are three main ways to find manuscripts held in the BPL Rare Books & Manuscripts Department:

  • Findings aids provide access to structured descriptions of select collections of manuscripts and archives
  • Online catalogs provide detailed descriptions of many individual manuscripts and basic descriptions of manuscript collections
  • Card catalogs provide basic information about almost all manuscripts, manuscript collections, and archives 

The three resources listed above provide information in different ways. In many cases, it is worth consulting all three resources. This research guide explores how each resource can be used to locate and learn about BPL manuscripts. Click through the tabs on the left to read more.