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Printer Friendly VersionThe National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections: An Untapped Source

By: Karen Stein Daniel
on August 1996

Last Updated: 2007-05-14 13:26:59


[This edited article first appeared in the PGST News, vol. 7, no. 1 (Spring 1990). Karen Stein Daniel is a Certified Genealogist and immediate past president of Clayton Library Friends.]

As genealogists, we are always on the lookout for new sources with which to facilitate the search for our ancestors. One extremely important and useful source has been virtually ignored by many family researchers. That source is the world of manuscript collections held in non-governmental repositories.

In America today, there exists over 1400 institutions that actively collect manuscript materials, records created primarily by the private sector: individuals, churches, schools, and businesses. These collections may also contain official public records that once belonged in the county courthouse but, for various reasons, are no longer there.

How does a researcher go about accessing these manuscript collections? An important database for locating manuscript material is found in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections, generally known as the NUCMC. From 1959 to 1993, the NUCMC was a comprehensive, ongoing project of the Library of Congress to catalog manuscript holdings that had been reported to the Library of Congress by repositories all over the United States. The result was a series of twenty-nine volumes describing more than 70,000 collections. The NUCMC can be found in most major university and research libraries and is available at the Houston Public Library Central Branch. The call number is CEN R018.IN277.

Several types of indexes exist for the NUCMC to assist users:

  1. A geographical guide to all repositories is found in the 1993 volume and covers the 1959-1993 issues. This guide replaces the previous guide covering the years 1959-1981. Under each state, the searcher will find an alphabetized listing of the repositories that reported their collections, together with the years in which each of them reported.
  2. An index to repositories is found at three- to four-year intervals. In 1993, a general guide was published to repositories divided by type of repository and subject.
  3. A subject index was issued annually with a cumulative index every four to five years. Eight cumulative and nine total indexes exist. The subject indexes contain listings for every personal name, every place name, and every subject mentioned in the collection description provided by NUCMC.

    The numbers referred to in the subject index after an entry are identification numbers assigned by the Library of Congress. The first two numbers stand for the year of publication; these are followed by the numerical listing of that collection on the page of the actual NUCMC catalog.

EXAMPLE: Levitansky 85-27

To find the above collection description, you would go to the 1985 volume, then search numerically until you find collection #27.

MS 85-27

Levin, Etta L., 1896-

Genealogy of the Levitansky family, 1955-1980.

ca. 200 p.

In: American Jewish Historical Society
collections (Waltham, Mass.).

Genealogy beginning in 1794 of the Levitansky
family, originally from Suwalki, Poland, claiming
heritage from 15th century Spain and the clan
Baranis, and connections with the Paradisthal
(or Paradise) family of Chicago, Ill. Includes
photos, newspaper clippings, and descriptions
of family events. Descendants include Boris
Leavitt, Dr. Samuel A. Levine, Dr. Abraham L.
Levin, and Dr. Max Levine.

Gift of Etta L. Levin, 1980.

Every collection description is set up in the following standard format:

  1. The top line is the collection’s name in NUCMC, the name by which it is supposedly known or designated by the repository.
  2. After the title come the dates encompassed by the collection. These dates are the earliest and latest items contained in it.
  3. The size of the collection follows. This can be described in terms of number of items, volumes, boxes, feet, and other designations.
  4. The next item is the location of the repository.
  5. This is followed by the collection description. The descriptive section is the most important part of the entry but is meant only to be a general finding aid, not a detailed description. When you find a collection that looks promising, you should check the repository’s own guide to the collection for a more complete description.
  6. The next line after the description may give information on an index, a detailed guide, or inventory to the collection in the repository.
  7. The last line gives information about how the collection was acquired, either by gift, purchase, or deposit.

Athough it was decided that the 1993 volume would be the last printed product of the series, the NUCMC team planned to continue producing a catalog on the Research Libraries Information Network (RLIN) for manuscript collections held by repositories unable to make such information available themselves. This project has not yet begun. The Library of Congress also plans to investigate cooperating with others to create a comprehensive machine-readable NUCMC database, created from many sources, and to be available to researchers electronically, on-line via a bibliographic utility, over the Internet, or on CD-ROM.

Because of the nature of manuscript materials, the researcher using them must possess time, perseverance, and creative thinking. The rewards can well be worth the effort. The breadth of manuscript holdings is limitless, from family and business papers, letters, diaries, and photographs, to court, military, and asylum records. The records you may find could prove invaluable in searching within a burned county or provide a vital clue for an elusive ancestor. As we progress in our research abilities and knowledge of methodology, we must be willing to venture into new and untapped source materials. Genealogists are missing a valuable opportunity for discovery by not using the NUCMC to its full extent.

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