Close this search box.
Close this search box.

Manuscript Materials Task Force

The purposes of the manuscript materials task force are to learn more about what scholars and teachers who rely on manuscript materials will need from libraries and archives in the future, and to help librarians and archivists address those needs now, in order to ensure future access to manuscript resources. These issues are made more pressing by the ever-increasing volume of information being generated and disseminated electronically. The ACLS-CLIR interest in the long-term accessibility of digital records was illustrated through discussion of the film which the two organizations recently produced on the problem of preservation in the digital environment, Into the Future, and through a brief recapitulation of some of the problems that the proliferation of information in digital form creates.

Manuscript Formats

The types of manuscript materials that have proven the most useful for researchers over time are diaries, correspondence, and other self-reflective genres, as well as draft versions of creative works, account books, and business records. The future of some of these genres is unpredictable, however. The frequency of written correspondence has dropped off dramatically with the spread of telephony, the automobile, and mass transportation. Is written correspondence being succeeded by e-mail, which appears to be replacing a significant share of some types of telephone exchanges, and which, unlike telephone calls, can indeed leave a record of the content of the communication? If so, do we need to make a concerted effort to preserve e-mail communications, or should we rely on the correspondents to do so, as we have in the past with paper records? The preferred format for use of manuscript materials is, in theory, the original, of course, but reformatted papers and printed editions are not only quite acceptable but at times preferred for ease of use. The group acknowledged that microfilming is an indispensable method for preserving fragile materials, despite the distinct limitations of microforms in access, and the librarians and archivists present expressed a general concern that there will simply never be enough resources to preserve as much material as we would like. Digitally converted items may be much easier to use, but large-scale projects for the digital conversion of original manuscripts do not appear to be the silver bullet for resolving either preservation or access issues, because of the high price and the unproven utility of such programs.

Examples of the policy and procedural questions of creating archives of e-mail and other digital communications are the controversy between the American Historical Association and the National Archives and Records Administration, and John Carlin’s September 1998 statement, “We All Stand to Gain If NARA Gets Budget Breakthrough”. The first may be found on the Web site of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibilities ( and the second on the Web site of George Mason University (

Access to Manuscript Materials

The most significant impediment to greater access to manuscript materials is the lack of adequate finding aids, in easily located sites. The highest priority, therefore, is to continue to create machine-readable records of manuscript holdings and make those records easily accessible on the Web or on a bibliographical utility.

Other, less remediable, and perhaps intractable impediments include the “vexed and vexing” issue of copyright, particularly in such collections as personal correspondence, which may contain received mail from a variety of third parties, all of whom hold the rights to their own letters; and the ongoing efforts of heirs to control the fate of an individual’s papers or to try to “protect the reputation” of the creator by censoring the record. Repositories are seldom able to loosen any of the restrictions imposed on use by donors and their heirs. Other problems may vanish over time, such as the hoarding of access to collections for which institutions may have paid a great deal of money and that they are therefore reluctant to share through reformatting. This reluctance may be quite misguided if it is based on the view that the artifactual (that is, market) value of the collection should take precedence over its research value. Only time and change in the leadership of institutions can overcome such reluctance.

Building Future Collections

One member of the task force noted that a distinct disadvantage of having his staff concentrate so much on making collections accessible-by creating finding aids, encoding documents to make them Web-accessible, and other such activities-is that the specialists have less and less time to devote to collection development, a critical and quite time-consuming activity. Others added comments about the types of documents that will be collected in the future and how difficult it will be to ensure preservation of, say, ephemera or e-mail. The upshot was an admission that, just as they have done in the past, libraries and archives in the future will have to rely on amateur collectors-such as those who scooped up all the ephemera created during the peace movement of the 1960s, a collection now housed at UCLA. In greater peril, perhaps, are government records that are being created electronically but are not being preserved systematically nor made accessible. Several court cases brought against the National Archives have highlighted both how widespread electronic records are in government, and how unprepared we are to save them. It is estimated, for example, that by the year 2000, 75 percent of all federal government transactions will be conducted electronically. Yet only in the past few months has the National Archives established a working group to deal with retention policies for such records.

The group touched only briefly on the future of paper records, as distinct from records generated electronically without traditional drafts, and on the proliferation of information recorded on video and audio formats. They felt that a discussion of such matters would be productive only in conjunction with the other task forces.

Manuscripts on Campuses

Several members spoke of past and present efforts at their institutions to involve faculty members and students in the active use of primary source documentation. The relatively new emphasis at research universities on undergraduate education was seen as hurting the research endeavor, including its resource base. One way to respond to the shift is to work closely with faculty members in helping them to integrate the use of manuscripts into the undergraduate curriculum, something that students seem universally to enjoy. On the other hand, the requirement of some universities that every course have its own home page may further jeopardize the role of primary source research in the teaching agenda. So too may a mandated survey approach to curriculum development, when it leads to a superficial sweep over vast amounts of information without allowing a few well-chosen stops, from which to bore deeply into an event through the close reading of primary documentation.

Preservation and Archiving Issues

It was agreed that such notions as archiving the Web may not be meaningful for future researchers. In one person’s words, there is simply too much information. Who will decide what is significant and should be preserved? Would it be useful to develop collection development guidelines for unpublished materials that would be analogous to those the Research Libraries Group (RLG) promulgated for published resources in its Conspectus? A high degree of confidence was expressed in the ability of collectors and researchers to sort out what is worth saving by exercising judgment about what they deem to be of long-term interest. Most of the information that a culture creates is of limited utility and dies a natural death, and this natural process of attrition will continue.


C.1. Finding aids

Focus on the creation of finding aids and making them Web-accessible. A researcher should be able with a single search to find all the recorded instances of the manuscript materials on his or her chosen topic.

C.2. Project-by-project justification

Do not invest too heavily in wholesale digital conversion of manuscript materials. Each project should be well defined in purpose, adhere to the highest scholarly standards, and shun the opportunistic or fashionable.

C.2. Public records

Pay more attention to the appropriate retention of public electronic records than of private ones. We can reasonably expect private records to be kept in one form or another by interested parties. Retaining public records, however, poses a much greater problem and has implications that go beyond future scholarship.

ACLS-CLIR Possible Program Initiatives

  1. Publish widely the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) projects that are underway in libraries and archives, and attempt to identify projects proposed for conversion of finding aids to EAD.
  2. Continue the investigation of acceptable techniques for digital preservation; publish ever more widely the ongoing saga of this investigation in the journals of each and every constituent member of ACLS and its sister organizations.
Skip to content