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Using manuscript catalogues

Manuscript catalogues differ from finding aids in that they provide a much more detailed and structured description of an individual manuscript based on a generally established cataloguing standard (as defined by N. R. Ker for medieval manuscripts; and by the General International Standard Archival Description for modern archives and manuscripts). In addition, finding aids are always collection-specific and hierarchical in structure, whereas manuscript catalogues may be less collection bound and more focused on the single document, particularly in the case of medieval manuscripts.

There exists a large number of published and unpublished catalogues for manuscripts held in UK repositories. They can be institution-specific or national in scope.

Examples of printed manuscript catalogues:

Watson, Rowan. Descriptive List of Fragments of Medieval Manuscripts in the University of London Library. [London, 1976].

Mynors, R.A.B. Catalogue of the Manuscripts of the Balliol College Oxford. (Oxford, 1963).

Ker, N.R. Catalogue of Manuscripts Containing Anglo-Saxon. (Oxford, 1957).

Ker, N.R. Medieval Manuscripts in British Libraries. (Oxford, 1969-2002)

Increasingly, printed catalogues are being converted to electronic form. It is now fairly common to find searchable databases for archives and manuscripts, some also with web access, in many repositories. There are also national initiatives aiming to bring descriptions from a large number of participating institutions into union electronic catalogues.

Examples of electronic manuscript catalogues:

MOLCAT: the British Library's Manuscripts Online Catalogue.

PROCAT: the National Archives' catalogue.

AIM 25: Archives in London and the M25 Area, a database of collection-level descriptions of archives in Higher Education institutions and learned societies in the South-East.

You should be aware that in many cases catalogues may reflect only partially the holdings of an institution, or they may provide only top level access to a collection description. To find an individual document you will need to go back to a printed catalogue, a finding aid, or to use the expertise of an archivist. Also, at present there is no single database that will give you access to descriptions of all the archives and manuscripts of relevance to your research subject.

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