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Meaning in the Manuscript

The Manuscript Division was one of several departments established in 1897 when the Library of Congress moved from its cramped quarters in the United States Capitol to its own new structure across the street. The division's first chief estimated that the size of his collections was 25,000 items. Today, more than a century later, the Manuscript Division holds more than 61 million items that document all aspects of American history and culture.

Manuscript Division Manuscript Book mural in Evolution of the Book series, John W. Alexander. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. 2007

Letters, diaries and other documents—from both the recent and the distant past—speak of a nation's hopes, disappointments and accomplishments. They transport the reader to a time and place that is both different from today yet all-too-familiar. Although interesting as artifacts, the real value of the manuscripts is in the evidence they provide—they are the proof of history.

The stars of the Manuscript Division’s collections are the papers of 23 presidents, including Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, James Madison and George Washington.

In addition, the division holds the papers of several other prominent government officials, including approximately half of the nation’s secretaries of state. Other political collections include the papers of the National Woman’s Party and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to name a few.

Don’t think, though, that the division’s holdings are purely civic. The beauty of the Library’s mission to collect and preserve knowledge is that includes a wealth of knowledge in a variety of categories, including cultural and scientific. Major collections exist for such writers as Zora Neal Hurston, Walt Whitman Edna St. Vincent Millay and former Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish. Scientists and inventors are represented by such figures as Benjamin Franklin, the Wright brothers and Alexander Graham Bell. Theater and motion picture figures such as Groucho Marx, Lillian Gish, Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn have their papers here. Artists and architects such as Samuel F. B. Morse and Frederick Law Olmsted are also represented in the collections.

For a broad overview of the Manuscript Division’s collections, its staff gathered approximately 90 illustrative documents for online display.

Also available on the Library’s webcasts page is a presentation, featured as part of the institution’s docent training program, on the treasures of the Manuscript Division.

A. Manuscript Division. Reproduction information not available.

B. Manuscript Book mural in Evolution of the Book series, John W. Alexander. Library of Congress Thomas Jefferson Building. 2007. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-highsm-02014 (original digital file); Call No.: LOT 13860 [item] (ONLINE) [P&P]