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     Recipe for Manuscripts Processing

    by Chris Bolgiano, Special Collections Librarian

    First, create a manuscript collection: take files of old family records from the attic and basement, toss well in a large box with bundles of old letters from secret desk drawers, and sprinkle a few handfuls of insect parts on top. Bring this to the nearest curator, stir up family genealogy until the curator’s eyes begin to glaze, then sign on the dotted line and leave. 

    Processing that manuscript collection means reversing the steps above (except for the signing on the dotted line part).


    Receipts from Houck Tannery, 1895-1910. Threaded onto metal wire and covered in soot or dust.
    The goal of processing a manuscript collection is first of all to preserve any organizational structure that the original creator, owner or compiler gave it. Unlike archives, however, which are the records created by businesses, institutions, governmental agencies and other organized entities, manuscript collections are created or collected by individuals or families who often fail to collate them in any logical way. So the job of the curator or archivist is to organize the materials in such a way that each record logically fits into only one place.

    The ultimate goal of manuscripts processing is to produce a finding aid, which serves as a summary and inventory of the collection and provides the interface between the collection and the researcher in the same way that a catalog entry informs a reader about a book. 

    Manuscript processing is accomplished through a series of passes. The first pass through the collection involves going through the entire contents and sorting the materials into general categories – correspondence, business ledgers, financial records, legal documents, news clippings, medical records, horse-breeding schedules – whatever there might be, depending on the kind of collection it is. During this first pass, the curator must be extremely careful not to lose any relationships between items – an envelope, for example, that is lying beneath or beside a letter might give the otherwise missing date of that letter. 

    Second and third passes are necessary to refine the categories, to arrange each category of materials in chronological order (very occasionally alphabetical), and to answer the many questions that usually arise.  Like, “Is this almost illegible penciled note really a Civil War spy communication in code?” or “Who in the Sam Hill is this guy who’s got all these checks made out to him?” Obviously, research is often necessary to compose a coherent finding aid that tells researchers the who, when, why, where and what of the collection. 

    Throughout all the passes, preservation of materials is a major concern.  Each item is cleaned, clippings may be photocopied, scrapbooks may be taken apart and reassembled using stable materials, and single pages may be encapsulated. The curator also identifies materials that are not historically valuable (blank forms, cancelled checks, pages full of “I will not hit my little brother any more”). These are listed on a “separation sheet” and returned to the donor.


    Once the collection is intellectually organized into categories (called series and subseries), it is packaged into acid free files and boxes. It’s no easy task to reconcile the intellectual arrangement of series and subseries with the physical arrangement dictated by the various sizes and configurations of materials.

    Once the collection is intellectually organized into categories (called series and subseries), it is packaged into acid free files and boxes. It’s no easy task to reconcile the intellectual arrangement of series and subseries with the physical arrangement dictated by the various sizes and configurations of materials.

    Then comes the final step of creating a finding aid, based on the extensive notes the curator has taken all along, which communicates to the researcher exactly what is in the collection and where it is.  Then the curator takes a stiff drink, and opens the next box.

    E-mail comments and questions to:
    leidinrm@jmu.edu

    Copyright 2002. JMU Libraries.
    All rights reserved.