This guest post is by Manuscript Division reference librarians Loretta Deaver, Patrick Kerwin, and Lara Szypszak.
The Manuscript Division’s reproductions of materials from overseas repositories, most gathered as part of the Library’s Foreign Copying Program, have long been on the radar of scholars and others with an interest in history. However, both researchers and librarians have been all too aware that the descriptive information for this massive amount of resources was minimal, scattered, and in some cases, nonexistent. The Manuscript Division has published a new guide that describes some of the most frequently consulted series in the collection: Foreign Copying Program: United Kingdom of Great Britain.
The history of the Foreign Copying Program records dates back to 1898, when the Library of Congress purchased a copy of the multivolume B. F. Stevens’s Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773-1783, a collection of manuscript reproductions from British archives and other repositories relating to American history. Additional Stevens reproductions were purchased over the years, and in 1905 the Library of Congress began a consistent and continuous program of procuring reproductions from British repositories. The Library obtained transcripts from the British Museum in London, the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and the Public Record Office (PRO). The project became known as the Foreign Copying Program, and ultimately resulted in many thousands of reproductions.
The difficulty of navigating the Foreign Copying Program records has become more apparent in recent years. Brief typewritten shelf lists were only accessible to researchers onsite in the Manuscript Reading Room, and an ever-increasing amount of new digital archival resources had yet to be incorporated into descriptions of the collection. Shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, Manuscript Division reference staff investigated leveraging online research guides as a way to consolidate and update the descriptions of the various series in the Foreign Copying Program records to make them more accessible.
In early March 2020, we started to focus our efforts on our British holdings, the largest and most popular grouping in the collection. By mid-March it became obvious that we would be working remotely due to the pandemic, and we quickly began copying, scanning, and photographing non-digitized reference sources. By the end of the month, our staff was fully remote and we started to consolidate and rewrite descriptions, many of which were created over a century prior. We were grateful to have such meaningful work to keep us connected at the time. Within a few months we began trickling back onsite one or two days a week. We used some of this time to take thousands of photographs of containers and microfilm reels, capturing the descriptive information written on their labels for use on telework days.
At the start of our redescription project, we identified hundreds of relevant catalog records and scanned typewritten reel lists in the Manuscript Reading Room. We began by putting the language from Grace Gardner Griffin’s 1946 book A Guide to Manuscripts Relating to American History in British Depositories: Reproduced for the Division of Manuscripts of the Library of Congress into a shared document. We quickly developed a personal affinity for our wayfinder, Grace Gardner Griffin, imagining her sitting for endless hours with the records as she wrote this invaluable book. Our journey seemed to parallel the same one she took all those years ago; now we were working to incorporate new descriptions and details about the collections for today’s researchers.
Much of the language in the Griffin guide was taken from Carnegie Institution guides written by Charles Andrews. Andrews had used the original PRO descriptions, many of which dated from the mid-19th century. British archival materials created subsequent to American independence were also described in Paullin and Paxson’s Guide to the Materials in London Archives for the History of the United States Since 1783. In addition to these books, staff and patrons in the Manuscript Reading Room had access to a number of card indexes to British archival materials as well as various catalogs produced by the Public Record Office.
Often, the original title or a portion of a document was used as a description. While the descriptions were accurate, they were also somewhat archaic and not particularly useful for keyword searching in an online environment. We strived to make the descriptions more modern, concise, and keyword searchable. We modernized geographic terms, names of Indigenous groups, and various outdated spellings. When possible, we also cross-referenced related Manuscript Division collections, demonstrating just how critical these materials have been to researchers seeking every drop of knowledge they can lay their hands on.
We further enhanced our descriptions by searching British archival catalogs, especially those of The National Archives and the British Library. When we found digitized content of our holdings on these websites, we linked to it in the shelf lists. Similarly, we searched subscription databases for similar content and linked to that respective material with the caveat that those images were included in subscription products. With the gradual return in June 2021 to onsite reference duties and a busy reading room, we had less time to work on the LibGuide, but to date, we have redescribed more than 100 separately cataloged collections, spanning more than 3,000 containers and 3,500 reels of microfilm, creating hundreds of pages of material to describe British archival materials and help guide users.
The pandemic provided a unique opportunity to develop a guide that would not only describe our British Foreign Copying Program holdings, but also convene resources from institutions around the world and that could serve as a template for future guides to reproductions from other countries. Our hope is that these guides will become essential resources for all scholars looking to access this rich and frequently overlooked material.
Questions about the Foreign Copying Program records or other collections held in the Manuscript Division? Contact staff through Ask a Librarian!
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