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Manuscripts & archives

The difference between manuscripts and archives

Archives differ from manuscripts in that they each serve a different function for the creator:

Records are created and maintained as part of the administrative and business processes of an organisation, or by an individual. Archives are records that have been retained for their historical, legal or functional value. Archives can include documents created in paper, audio-visual, or electronic form. They are usually well structured according to the administrative principles of the creating organisation or person.

Examples of archival collections:

London University Transport Studies Society. Records created by the Society; 1962-2000; 15 boxes (Senate House Library, MS 1000) Here is a full description of this collection

Harry Price (1881-1948). Papers of Harry Price, psychical researcher; [c500-1999]; 120 boxes (Senate House Library, HP) Here is a full description of this collection

Manuscripts, unlike archive collections, do not have structured, hierarchical arrangements. Manuscripts can include items that are later published, such as manuscripts of books, poems and plays. Manuscripts are often single documents. Collections of manuscripts are often put together or collated to serve a particular purpose, for example by persons as part of their intellectual or creative efforts - literary, artistic, religious, or involving historical research. The medium of transmission varies depending on the origin and date of creation: papyrus, vellum or parchment, paper, audio-visual, or electronic.

The definition of manuscripts and archives, and manuscript collections, may vary. You may find that 'manuscripts' is used to indicate a collection of personal papers, which may in other circumstances be defined as an archive. This use of terminology is particularly common in the United States.

Examples of manuscript collections:

TENNYSON, Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson (1809-1892). Collection of manuscripts; 1880-1884; 4 volumes (Senate House Library, SL V31, SL V32, SL V33, SL V34). Here is a full description of this collection

Property deeds relating to England, Wales and Jersey. Collection of documents collated by Professor Francis Wormald; [1162] - 1659; 80 items (Senate House Library, MS 814). Here is a full description of this collection

Book of hours (use of Rome, Péronne); [1450-1500]; 1 volume of 227 leaves (Senate House Library, MS 519). Here is a full description of this collection

Archives and manuscripts both serve a similar purpose for the repository which collects, organises, preserves, and mediates access to them: as an authentic reflection of the past they are useful for original study and research across a wide variety of subjects.

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