The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents

The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents

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The Manuscript Society Criteria for Describing Manuscripts and Documents

For decades the manuscript market was an integral part of the book trade. With the rapidly evolving interest in autographs, manuscripts and documents, a large independent market has opened up with many dealers handling only manuscript material. Through this rapid growth period, there have been no general standards available for describing and grading manuscripts and documents. Although there are examples in many catalogues of good descriptive criteria, collectively there are many differences in the criteria used from one dealer to another. Often much is left to the imagination of the buyer and collector. It was clear that there was a pressing need to adopt a standardized format for describing and grading manuscript material.

In 1967 Anglo-American Cataloging Rules (AACR) was published which provided a guide for cataloging archival manuscript material. In 1988 a revised AACR 2 was published by the American Library Association. Neither publication met the complete needs in the manu- script field. In 1983 the Library of Congress modified Chapter 4 of AACR 2 and published Archives, Personal Papers and Manuscripts— A Cataloging Manual for Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries (APPM). This is the current standard system used by the Library of Congress and recommended for use by the American Library Association, Society of American Archivists (SAA) and others to catalog archival papers. APPM has been revised again by Steven L. Hensen under the auspices of the SAA and was published in December 1989.

Unfortunately for dealers and collectors of manuscripts and docu- ments, APPM has been oriented primarily toward cataloging and retrieval of manuscripts and documents. Greater emphasis is placed on
collections of papers, rather than on detailed descriptions of single items. Its primary purpose was to create a dependable system for cataloging material of historic value. As such, little attention was directed toward describing the condition of manuscripts and docu- ments or other features which are of more interest to private collectors.

Accordingly, the Manuscript Society has prepared a set of criteria for describing manuscripts and documents designed primarily for the collector, institutional buyer and dealer. The rules and criteria elabo- rated in APPM are far too detailed and cumbersome for descriptive cataloging of autograph material in the marketplace. Extensive use has been made, however, of APPM and the abbreviations in AACR 2 in developing our criteria, in order to maintain uniformity in the archival field. The intent has been to encourage the use of standard terminology and a uniform system for describing manuscripts and documents, primarily for private collectors and dealers.

There can be no simple or perfect system to achieve this end, as each manuscript and document (unlike grading of stamps, coins or books) is unique unto itself. The length of this presentation is mandated by the many variables that must be taken into consideration for accurate descriptions. It is felt, however, that by using this system, the collector and institutional buyer will have a better description of the manuscripts he wishes to acquire and the dealer will feel more comfortable in marketing his material.

To those newly acquainted with the manuscript field, these criteria will introduce you to important tools which are essential in communi- cating with your associates.

General Format

A format is presented here which sequentially handles the data neces- sary for a uniform system of recording the description of manuscripts and documents.

Name (Dates of birth and death). Biography. Descriptive Code, number of pages, dimensions in inches, place, date. Address. Grade. Defects. Description.

e.g. Lincoln, Abraham (1809-1865). President of the United States (1861-65). ALS, 1p, 9"x6", Washington, D.C., 1863 Oct. 2. Addressed to Edwin Stanton. Fine. Slight foxing blank right margin. Concerns military appropriations.

Name, Dates of Birth, Death and Biography:

  1. Last name first, preferably in bold type. Pseudonym in pa- rentheses e.g. Clemens, Samuel (Mark Twain).

  2. Place the author’s name in parentheses if the document or manuscript is entirely in another hand.

  3. If the subject is other than an individual, place in parenthe- ses. e.g. (American Revolution).

  4. Note the year of birth and death, if known, in parentheses after the name.

  5. Biographical data on author. Pertinent data. Length of description is optional.

Descriptive Code (Abbreviations and Definitions):


S Signature (hand of the author), when used alone. Signed, when used with another code letter.

MsS Manuscript signed (text in the hand of another per- son; signature in the hand of the author).

AMsS Autographed manuscript signed (entirely in the hand of the author).

TMsS Typed manuscript signed (signature in the hand of the author).

AMs Autographed manuscript unsigned (in the hand of the author).

LS Letter signed (text the in hand of another person; signature in the hand of the author).

ALS Autographed letter signed (entirely in the hand of the author).

TLS Typed letter signed (signature in the hand of the author).

AL Autographed letter unsigned (in the hand of the author).

ANS Autographed note signed. A very brief message (entirely in the hand of the author).

AES Autographed endorsement signed (an endorsement on another person’s letter or document entirely in

the hand of the endorser).
AQS Autographed quotation signed (entirely in the hand

of the author).

complete documentation at:


  • Language: English
  • Paperback: 11 pages