Manuscripts and archives are documents produced by organisations or individuals in the course of their activities, and preserved because of their continuing value. Unlike published material, they usually exist in one copy only, and are therefore unique and irreplaceable.

Some examples: letters, notes, diaries, literary drafts, financial records, minutes, reports. 

Personal papers of individuals and groups are usually held in manuscript libraries.

Records created by an organisation (especially government organisations) are usually held in archives.

The terms “manuscripts”, “archives”, “papers” and “records” are sometimes used interchangeably. The term “archive” might refer to a collection of papers, or the building that houses them.

Government archives. National, state and local government archives (e.g. National Archives of Australia, Queensland State Archives, Brisbane City Council Archives; also the National Film and Sound Archive).

Organisation archives. Archives of churches, historical societies, hospitals, schools, businesses, universities, museums and other organisations. The Noel Butlin Archives Centre in Canberra has significant archives of businesses and trade unions.

Libraries. Libraries with significant manuscript collections include the National Library of Australia, Mitchell Library (part of State Library of New South Wales), John Oxley Library of Queensland History (part of State Library of Queensland), and Fryer Library (part of University of Queensland Library.)

AUSTRALIA

Trove
‘Diaries, letters, archives’ can be searched for locations for primary research material in Australia. Includes summary descriptions of manuscripts. Does not include government records.

Directory of Archives in Australia
Contact details for archives and manuscript collections in Australia, including basic summaries of holdings.

Guide to Australian Literary Manuscripts
A database of finding aids for 86 collections of Australian literary manuscripts. The finding aids can be individually searched, or all can be searched at once by keyword.

UNITED KINGDOM

National Register of Archives
Information on the nature and location of manuscripts and historical records that relate to British history.

ARCHON Directory
Contact details for archives listed in the National Register of Archives.

Location Register of Twentieth-Century English Literary Manuscripts and Letters : a Union List of Papers of Modern English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh Authors in the British Isles  (in printed format, with an online index)

Manuscripts in the British Isles relating to Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific (in printed format)

UNITED STATES

National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections
Access to the United States national database of manuscript holdings.

EUROPE

MALVINE : Manuscripts and Letters via Integrated Networks in Europe
Post-medieval manuscripts in selected European repositories.

When you have established which archive or manuscripts library holds the papers you wish to use, consult its finding aids or catalogue for details. Because archives and manuscripts are different from published material, they are described differently.

“Finding aids” are guides to collections, which provide detailed inventories of the collection’s contents. Many finding aids are only available in paper format, and can only be consulted at the archive or manuscript library which produced them. However, an increasing number of finding aids are available online.

Many manuscript libraries, including the National Library of Australia and the University of Queensland Fryer Library, now describe their manuscript holdings in their online library catalogues.

National Archives of Australia RecordSearch
Commonwealth government records. RecordSearch is the collection database.

Queensland State Archives Database Search
Records of state government departments, statutory authorities and government-owned corporations.

National Library of Australia Manuscript Collection
Manuscript collections are described both in detail (through Manuscript Finding Aids) and in summary (through the Manuscript Catalogue.)

University of Queensland Library Catalogue
Catalogue records for manuscripts held in Fryer Library can be found in the University of Queensland Library catalogue. Most of these records link to detailed listings of the contents of manuscript collections.

Manuscripts Queensland
Manuscripts at the State Library of Queensland.

University of Queensland Archives

British Library Manuscripts Catalogue

National Archives (UK)
UK government records.

National Archives (US)
US government records.

Because archives and manuscripts are often irreplaceable, valuable and fragile, most archives and manuscript libraries have special rules about their use.

It is advisable to contact the archives or library before your visit.

Usually you cannot browse the shelves of an archives or manuscript library. You will need to identify from the finding aid or catalogue the papers you wish to consult, and then make a request for the material.

Archives and manuscripts are usually organised according to “provenance”, i.e. the person or organisation who created or accumulated the documents. They are not organised by subject. This means that when you are searching for archives or manuscripts, you will need to consider who is the most likely person or organisation to have created the documents, and then search on that basis.