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Special Collections: Researching Local History

This guide is for anyone interested in researching local history topics using Augustana College Special Collections resources.

What Are Manuscript Collections?

Manuscript boxes on shelves

Manuscript collections, also known as archival collections, are groups of materials that belong together due to some unifying characteristic.  Usually that unifying characteristic is the person, group, or organization that created the material, but sometimes it can be a subject or topic that all of the materials have in common.  The bulk of manuscript materials are paper-based, and they typically are stored in folders that are organized in boxes, but manuscript collections can also include other types of material such as photographs, audiovisual recordings, artifacts, textiles, and more.  In our archives, a collection can be anywhere from a single box to hundreds of boxes.

Manuscript collections are identified by a name and a number, and the boxes within the collection are also numbered.  In order to request material in the reading room, you will need to know the collection name, the collection number, and the box number(s) containing the part of the collection you wish to examine.  If you need help deciding which collection to use, or have trouble identifying the various numbers that you need for your request form, you can always ask for help from the friendly staff at our reading room desk.

When doing research in manuscript collections, you will need to start by familiarizing yourself with the finding aid for the collection you want to use.  A finding aid is a tool to help you understand what the collection is, who created it, how we came to own it, how big it is, what general types of information it contains, and how the contents are organized.  It's a little bit like a combined title page, introduction, and table of contents for a book.  The finding aid includes a collection inventory that shows what is in the collection and where in the collection it is located (i.e. what box number).  In most cases, you will not find information about individual items or documents, but rather a description of the units into which the individual items have been grouped.  For example, you may find in a collection of someone's personal papers an entry in the finding aid for a folder containing correspondence for a particular year, but you won't be able to tell from the finding aid if that folder contains a letter from a particular person written on a particular date.

Many, but not all, of our manuscript collections are fully processed and have detailed finding aids.  Some collections are "unprocessed," which means you may find a brief description of the collection, but there is no full inventory of the collection available yet.  If you are interested in seeing the contents of an unprocessed collection, please speak to a staff member and please understand that in most cases it is not possible to provide access to an unprocessed collection.

All of our finding aids are available electronically via a platform called ArchivesSpace (see link below).  You can search across finding aids for key words or phrases, search by subject heading, search by individual, family, or corporate names, or look up a collection already known to you by name or number.  Within each finding aid, you can search for key words or phrases in the collection inventory, which is an especially useful feature in very large collections that are too extensive to browse.  ArchivesSpace is a powerful discovery tool, but it can be a bit confusing for first-time users.  If you have difficulty navigating through our finding aids on ArchivesSpace, please don't hesitate to ask us for help.