A brief overview of the Library’s Manuscript collections is available in the research guide Library of Congress Manuscripts: An Illustrated Guide.
The Manuscript Division was one of several "departments" established in 1897 when the Library of Congress moved from the United States Capitol to a separate building nearby. Its staff of four assumed custody of a collection of twenty-five thousand manuscripts which had accumulated throughout the nineteenth century, chiefly through the purchase in 1867 of Peter Force's collection of Americana, the gift in 1882 of Joseph M. Toner's collection relating to George Washington and American medical history, and several small transfers from the Smithsonian Institution. In 1903, by an act of Congress and an executive order, the State Department began transferring historical papers, including several presidential collections, which had been acquired by the federal government.
Despite its early concentration upon acquiring original manuscripts for political, military, and diplomatic history, the division soon broadened its acquisition interests, especially after World War II, to include cultural history, history of science, and the archives of nongovernmental organizations. Its current holdings, more than 73 million items contained in approximately twelve thousand separate collections, include some of the greatest manuscript treasures of American history and culture. Among these are Jefferson's rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, James Madison's notes on the Federal Convention, George Washington's first inaugural address, the paper tape of the first telegraphic message--"What hath God wrought?", Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and second inaugural address, and Alexander Graham Bell's first drawing of the telephone.
The Manuscript Division’s preeminent areas of distinction are the U.S. presidency (major collections of the papers of 23 American presidents); U.S. Congress (the papers of more than 900 members); U.S. federal judiciary (more than three dozen Supreme Court justices from John Jay to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and more than two dozen jurists from the district and appellate federal courts); military affairs, diplomacy and foreign policy (secretaries of state from Thomas Jefferson to Madeline Korbel Albright); arts and literature (Jane Johnston Schoolcraft through Herman Wouk and Philip Roth); entertainment (select theater, television, radio and film); science (Andrew Ellicott to Nina Federov; psychology (Sigmund Freud and his circle); journalism (Horace Greeley to Daniel Schorr); African American history and culture (Booker T. Washington to the NAACP and Rosa Parks); the history of the Library of Congress and the institution’s contributions to library and archival practice; and U.S. women’s history (Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Patsy T. Mink). Emerging areas of strength include LGBTQIA+ studies and environmental history.
The Library’s Manuscript collections also include born-digital resources. While many relevant resources can be accessed from anywhere, some subscription databases and copyright-protected digitized resources are only accessible in the Manuscript Reading Room and on the Library of Congress campus. Users not able to visit in-person can still explore the Library's growing digital collections, curated web archives and virtual exhibits through the Manuscript Reading Room website. Information about how to access born-digital manuscript material is available in an online web guide: Accessing Born-Digital Manuscript Material.
Finding aids, research guides and additional resources for navigating Manuscript Division collections are available on the Researcher Resources page. Additional information is also available for planning your visit to view collection materials under About this Reading Room. For additional assistance with collections not available remotely, users are still encouraged to reach out to reference staff through Ask A Librarian.