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  • Finding Manuscripts Online

    Maureen A. Taylor

    Published Date : June 14, 2002

    When Ken Burns used one of Sullivan Ballou's letters in the PBS production The Civil War there were probably gasps in living rooms across America. Why? Because some Ballou family members probably didn't realize that one of their kinsmen left such poignant letters. As the media buzz started over his romantic words, librarians at the Rhode Island Historical Society decided to look at the Ballou material in their collection. As it turns out, there were a few more letters from him to his wife.

    While your ancestor may not have left such a powerful group of letters, manuscripts - letters, diaries and other papers - may help you learn about the daily lives of your relatives. Have you ever wondered if your ancestors left any written record? Some of you may own small groups of letters, or even a diary, but there may be more material sitting in archives and libraries of which you are unaware. Now is the time to search for those missing documents. At one point, looking for manuscripts involved hours of checking indexes, but online offerings have streamlined the process. Before you start looking it helps to understand the basic vocabulary used by archivists and librarians.


    • Inventory: Historical background on the subject of the papers, significant material in the collection, list of folder titles and sometimes related collections in the same repository. This information can be several pages long or only a short paragraph.
    • Provenance: Information on past owners
    • Record Group: A group of related records based on provenance. Some archives keep manuscripts and photographs in a record group, but that is not the case in all repositories.

    Now you're ready to search. The basic rules of searching online are simple - try everything you can think of and keep good records. While you might think I'm being glib, I'm not. Before you sit down to search for material, make a list of what you want to look for, with subcategories. If you're searching for a single person, in addition to looking specifically for him or her, input general search terms as well. In seeking material on Sullivan Ballou and his cousins, I would include the name of his Civil War Regiment, his wife's name (and the names of her parents) and where he lived. I would also try to locate the papers of his commanding officers. Since Ballou died in battle, he might be mentioned in one of their documents.

    Your goal is to attempt to find everything associated with your ancestors - diaries, letters, family papers and even artifacts. Every piece of paper provides additional details of their lives. It's helpful to remember that whether or not you find material depends, in part, on their level of literacy and their gender. Men generally left more written evidence behind. You might not find letters written by your great-great-grandmother but you could be surprised by what may be discovered about her in manuscripts written by other relatives. Even if you don't succeed in the beginning, keep looking.

    Now that you understand archival terminology and basic search techniques, there are several ways to use online resources to help you find those "missing" documents.

    Online search engines

    Try entering your ancestor's name into a search engine like Google and see what turns up. I began by looking for "Sullivan Ballou" and discovered an amazing number of sites that contain the text of his famous letter to his wife Sarah, as well as pictures and contact information on other researchers. I also tried more general terms such as "Ballou Family" and discovered the papers for Hosea Ballou and the Ballou family (1838-1939) in the Andover-Harvard Theological Library at Harvard University's Divinity School. By looking for material on the second Rhode Island Volunteers, I once again found links to historical data as well as a reenactment group.

    A more general search in Google for "family manuscripts" found collections, single letters, and instructions on editing manuscripts. Who knows? After locating papers you might want to transcribe them, and that advice will be handy. Your success or failure can depend on the terms you use to search. For instance, while "Ballou family manuscripts" found no hits, using "Ballou family papers" led me to the Hosea Ballou collection.

    In the online record for the Hosea Ballou papers is an inventory broken down by members of the family, record types or general headings such as "Ballou Family Association" or "newspaper clippings." Once you uncover a lead, contact the institution either by looking at their linked home page and sending an email or writing a letter requesting information on their usage policies.

    Online inventories

    Even if you own some of your ancestor's personal documents, try using the Library of Congress National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) website or in printed volumes. On their site you'll find a directory of manuscript archives in the United States. This list is of organizations that submit information to NUCMC. According to their website, the printed volumes one through twenty-nine (1959-1993) contain descriptions of more than 72,000 collections in close to 1,500 repositories indexed by subject, family, and corporate and geographic names. If you can't locate a volume at a library near you, it is possible to order microfilm copies ($35/reel) from the Library of Congress, Photoduplication Service (101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, D.C. 20540-5230).

    If your public library system participates in publisher Chadwyck-Healey's online Archives USA, then you have easy access to NUCMC cataloging from 1959 to the present. Chadwyck-Healey also published an Index to Personal Names in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, 1959-1984 (2 vols., 1988), and an Index to Subjects and Corporate Names in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, 1959-1984 (3 vols., 1994). Archives USA is a directory of over five thousand archives in the United States. Each repository listing provides complete contact information, collecting policies and URLs.

    A keyword search for Ballou provided forty-five records relating to the Ballou family in repositories as scattered as the Archives and Manuscript Department of the University of Alaska Anchorage Consortium Library; the Genealogy Collection at the Vigo County Historical Society in Terre Haute, Indiana; the Huntington Library in San Marino California; and the Library of Congress. Each of those collections contained some material relating to the Ballou family. In a few instances the connection was unclear, since the title of the collection lacked the Ballou surname. In every instance, it is worth reading through the whole description in the database and contacting the institution to see if it has what you seek. The repository might have related collections that do not appear in the database.


    If you haven't tried participating in an online auction, don't hesitate. There is a tremendous amount of material for sale. If you decide to use eBay there are plenty of user-friendly features such as automatic bidding (you set the limit). You can even take online tutorials on buying, selling and how eBay works. There are plenty of search options - select a specific category such as "Antiques" or try all of the listings at one time. I found a couple of books by Hosea Ballou and a Ballou genealogy available, and friends report purchasing memorabilia for family businesses and manuscripts for individuals and towns. In the online marketplace, you never know what you will find.

    Message boards

    Not all manuscripts get donated; many remain in private collections, so using message boards is still one of the best ways to broadcast a family search. Post a message on a surname or geographic board and see if anyone in the network has manuscripts on your ancestor. If you own papers, then you might want to add that to your posting and offer to share material. Try the boards on GenForum or on RootsWeb to begin. Whether you are seeking manuscripts for a specific person or are willing to share what you have, make sure your posting is easy to read and contains simple information. Don't forget to check if any genealogical organizations you belong to maintain discussion forums or queries - visit the New England Historic Genealogical Society discussion forums at National Genealogical Society members should also check the NGS website

    Reunion sites

    Just as there are sites to reunite people with missing photographs, there are a couple that include manuscripts. To keep up-to-date, check Cyndi's List under the categories "Diaries and Letters" and "Family Bibles."

    Past Connect offers a database of items - letters, diplomas, marriage certificates, etc. - found at "auctions, estate sales, flea markets, yard sales and from other sources." Another website to try is Ford & Nagle. They've posted family bibles, documents, and photographs that they have found and want to reunite with family members.

    Historical societies and private collections

    Don't worry if your online searching is unsuccessful. It just means it is time to write a letter or email the local historical societies in the area your ancestor lived about searching their collections for appropriate material. They might charge search fees, but if they find something it will be worth the investment. You can try calling first or check their home pages to find out about research policies. See "Historical Societies - A Guide to Online Research" (NEW ENGLAND ANCESTORS, winter 2001) for a list of the state historical societies that accept email queries and have websites.

    So, why should you take the time to look for manuscripts? Because you never know what you are going to locate or where. The missing document you uncover can be full of answers to family mysteries or, like Sullivan Ballou, reveal a poignant love story. So start investigating the options listed above and see what you can find.

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