About this Collection

The collection contains over 145,000 items. The online version contains 4,695 items (equaling about 51,500 images), consists of correspondence, scientific notebooks, journals, blueprints, articles, and photographs documenting Bell's invention of the telephone and his involvement in the first telephone company, his family life, his interest in the education of the deaf, and his aeronautical and other scientific research. Dates span from 1862 to 1939, with the bulk of the materials dating from 1865 to 1920. Included among Bell's papers are pages from his experimental notebook from March 10, 1876, describing the first successful experiment with the telephone, during which he spoke through the instrument to his assistant the famous words, "Mr. Watson--Come here--I want to see you." Bell's various roles in life as teacher, inventor, celebrity, and family man are covered extensively in his papers. Complementing the Bell Papers are digital images of photographs from the Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division.

The Bell Family Papers is divided into several archival series, including Family Papers, General Correspondence, Subject File, Beinn Bhreagh Recorder, Laboratory Notebooks, Article File, and Speech File. The online presentation includes the following:

  • Family Papers
    The Family Papers mainly consist of correspondence between Alexander Graham Bell and various members of his family. Some family members may also have their own files, which include diaries, articles, and other correspondence.
  • General Correspondence
    These are letters between Alexander Graham Bell and his friends, colleagues, and other acquaintances. Correspondence between Bell and his family is found in Family Papers.
  • Subject File
    These files consist of correspondence, scientific notebooks, blueprints, and other materials covering a range of subjects, from the telephone, to Bell's scientific research, to his work with the deaf.
  • Beinn Bhreagh Recorder, Volume 1
    The Beinn Bhreagh Recorder was a regular publication, created by Alexander Graham Bell, that recorded the progress of Bell's various scientific research projects as well as local and family events at his summer home in Nova Scotia.
  • Laboratory Notebooks - Home Notes, Volume 64, 1910
    Laboratory Notebooks - Laboratory Notes, Volume 31, 1891-1893
    These laboratory notebooks, dated 1910 and 1891-1893, are representative of the more than 200 volumes of laboratory notebooks compiled by Alexander Graham Bell from 1879 to 1922. Scientific notebooks and journals, particularly those pertaining to the telephone, can also be found among the Subject Files.
  • Article and Speech Files
    These articles and one speech are a sample of the handwritten and typewritten drafts and printed copies written by Alexander Graham Bell. Their various subjects include Bell's childhood, aeronautics, deaf education, and scientific experiments.
  • Miscellany
    This last series is composed of miscellaneous writings and copies of correspondence, mostly by Alexander Graham Bell. There is also some poetry, written both by and for Bell.

Several factors defined the selection of Bell Papers for digitization. The collection as a whole includes the personal papers of not only Alexander Graham Bell but also those of his father, mother, wife, father-in-law, and other family members. Because the Bell Papers are so numerous and inclusive, navigation through them can be difficult. Therefore, one of the main objectives of the selection process was to identify those materials which mainly focused on Alexander Graham Bell and his work, varied interests, and achievements. Another important goal was to choose those materials that best offered a well-rounded portrayal of Bell--not only as an inventor and scientist but also as a teacher, husband, and father. Items were also selected if they appeared historically useful or significant, such as correspondence pertaining to the development of the Bell Telephone Company or Mabel Hubbard Bell's written accounts of her experiences growing up deaf.

The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers were donated to the Library of Congress by his heirs in 1975. Prior to this donation, the papers were on deposit at the National Geographic Society, where they were organized and maintained. In order to make the collection easier to use, the Society prepared typed transcripts of a large portion of the handwritten letters. These valuable transcriptions were retained and have been reproduced here along with the original letters. Occasionally the original is missing and only the transcription is still available. One should keep in mind that these transcripts are now decades old and may occasionally be difficult to read due to faded, bleeding, or blurred text.

The Bell Papers contain a considerable amount of correspondence, much of which reflects the writing practices of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As letter writing becomes less popular, some awareness of common, older practices may be helpful. Since the typical handwritten letter is essentially a single sheet of paper folded in half (and usually written on all four sides), the digital scan and display of each unfolded sheet usually show an image of pages four and one (or back and front), and another of pages three and two (or the inside two pages). Example Today's readers also should be aware of such papers-saving tactics as writing-over, or text over text. In such cases, the writer would literally write over a completed page, making the added words somewhat readable by turning the page sideways and writing horizontally against what were now vertical written lines. Example Surprisingly, if the writer was careful and lengthened his or her hand while also trying to write only in the spaces between lines, such letters can be read with little difficulty.

Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Hubbard Bell, November 19, 1876. Box 35, "Subject File: Bell, Mabel Hubbard--Family Correspondence--Bell, Alexander Graham, August-November 1876." Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Example of a folded letter with pages one and four on one side and pages three and two on the other.