Thursday, July 19, 2007

Manuscript Collections

One of the reasons that I tell people that "it's not ALL on the Internet, and probably never will be, and therefore you have to search every possible paper repository" is demonstrated nicely at the Concord (MA) Free Public Library web site of their manuscript collection - here.

A Seaver cousin wrote me and told me that the collected papers of Nathan Hobbs Seaver, a Civil War soldier on both the Union and Confederate Armies, are deposited in the Concord Free Public Library. The Nathan Hobbs Seaver collection is here. There are two boxes, including 47 Civil War letters to his family, a notebook, some ephemera, his estate papers, and much more. In this box are papers about Joshua Pettigone, father of Nathan's wife, Alice, who commanded the ship Shooting Star.

The Concord Free Public Library has 130 collections like this listed on their Finding Aids page. I checked to see if Google would find "Nathan Hobbs Seaver" in the library collection, and it did not. I checked five other collections at random, and Google found two of them, but not the other three. The lesson there is that you cannot trust a search engine to find things like this.

They do not have images of each page of the collections online. For Nathan Hobbs Seaver, they have just an image of the first page of the first letter from him to his sister.

There are hundreds (thousands?) of manuscript collections in libraries, museums, historical societies, etc. all over the nation. Very few, if any, of them have been digitized and posted on the Internet.

The National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC) at the Library of Congress has a search engine at to search manuscript collections. When I input "nathan hobbs seaver" into this search field, it did not find the Concord collection.

Now can you understand why I advise searching every paper repository? When you're up against that brick research wall, sometimes the only records you will find are a treasure trove like the priceless collection Nathan Hobbs Seaver papers.

The challenge, of course, is to find the collections. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of digging through web sites or visits to repositories - and not always where your ancestral family lived. In this case, the donor lived in Concord and the family had lived in Roxbury MA, not too far away.

Nathan Hobbs Seaver was not my ancestor. However, because I posted my Seaver surname data at a distant cousin was able to find me and provide me with this information on Nathan Seaver. And I was able to share it with you. And with others who might be searching for him, since this site is searched by Google.

How about you? Any success stories from your own research of finding ancestral family data in manuscript collections? Have you checked NUCMC? Have you written to, or visited, the historical society or library in the area where your ancestors lived?


footnoteMaven said...


My husband is going to be at a conference in San Diego the end of August. I will be joining him for one day and would like to try to arrange to have breakfast or lunch with you and your lovely wife Linda.

Please let me know if this is possible. Send me your email and I will talk over the dates with you.


Anonymous said...

I would be interested to see the results if you tried the same searches on other search engines. I like,, and of course Rollyo. As a librarian I'm always educating people about Google's pluses and minuses. Some days I think the minuses are beginning to outweigh the positives.

Drew Smith said...

Although Google does not appear to have indexed Concord's finding aids, Live Search ( and have. It's not a bad idea to use Dogpile ( when searching for unusual names or places, as Dogpile simultaneously searches Google, Yahoo! Search, Live Search, and, the 4 most popular search engines.