Skip to Main Content
Research Guides

What are manuscripts & archives?

 Examples of manuscript material

Manuscripts and archives are unique documents (handwritten or typed letters, diaries, meeting minutes, photographs, financial records, etc.) produced by people and organizations. Manuscripts generally refer to personal papers while archives usually refer to organizational, institutional or business records. Oftentimes the terms are used interchangeably. Some collections may be a single folder containing a few letters while others can span hundreds of boxes containing thousands of documents.

The UW Libraries Special Collections contains manuscripts and archival records that document the history and culture of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. Included in the collection are personal papers of early pioneers and settlers, labor and civic leaders, citizen activists and important writers, artists and activists and organizational records from labor unions, the University, important industries, conservation groups and local community and ethnic groups. 

Search Collection Guides via Archives West


A collection guide or finding aid is a detailed inventory of the content of a manuscript collection. Guides help researchers identify the boxes or folder of interest within a collection. A typical guide also provides background information on the organization or person who created the material, an overview of the collection and how it is arranged plus a detailed container list and any use restrictions. For more information see Purdue's How to Read a Finding Aid.

Other PNW Collections

These are just a selection of regional archival collections. Use Archives West to search for collections on specific people, organizations or topics located in manuscript collections across the Pacific Northwest (Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, Washington & Utah). Also check with local historical societies and museums.

Collections Elsewhere

Tips for Using Manuscript Collections

Research using manuscripts and archives is different from more typical library research. The unique nature of the material dictates that there are stricter security procedures -- users need to register, manuscript materials need to be requested, personal belongings are placed in lockers, photocopying is limited, etc. The following tips can help you when using the manuscript material in Special Collections:

  • Check Special Collections hours, they are open fewer hours than the rest of the library. 
  • Read Using the Collections. You may also find Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research helpful.
  • Do preliminary research first so that you can place the manuscript material in historical context. Since manuscripts tend to be either personal papers or organizational records, it is essential to know the important people and groups associated with your research topic.
  • Make sure the collections you need are housed on site. Some collections are kept off-campus and must be requested prior to use. If this information is not provided in the online collection guide (or if there is no online guide), contact Special Collections to check.
  • Peruse the online collection guide, if available, prior to using this collection so that you can identify the boxes and folders you will need to examine.
  • Allocate sufficient time. Research using manuscript and archival material takes time.
  • Ask permission to use your phone to take photos of items. Consider using Tropy to organize the photos.
  • Copyright information for for users of manuscript collections