The California Section of the California State Library has been acquiring, organizing and providing access to manuscript collections since the section was established in 1904. There are currently about 2,000 collections available for researchers to explore.
A manuscript collection is comprised of unpublished materials collected by, or associated with, an individual or organization. Such materials may include single items—such as letters, diaries, scrapbooks, ledgers, or manuscripts of published works—or groups of items, such as correspondence, corporate records, legal papers and such. In addition, manuscript collection material may be in a wide variety of formats, including handwritten or printed documents; graphic presentations such as photographs, maps, or drawings; or audio-visual presentations such as sound recordings and films.
The California History Section manuscript collections have a strong focus on the gold rush period and related nineteenth-century events in California. Examples of important collections include the papers of John and Annie Bidwell or the records of the Yellow Aster Mining and Milling Company. Twentieth-century materials include collections documenting important political events of the later part of the century, for instance, the Paul Gann archive and the David Warren Ryder Archive.
Each collection available for use is described in a detailed record called a finding aid, which provides both an overview of the intellectual organization of the collection and a detailed list of items within the collection. Researchers should consult the finding aid for a particular collection in order to ascertain the usefulness of that collection for their research.
Finding aids for most of our manuscript collections are available through our online catalog. In addition, the Online Archive of California (OAC) lists the majority of our collections. Specialized indexes available only at the library are also useful for locating manuscript material.
Viewing manuscript collections
All manuscript materials must be used in the Rare Materials Reading Room. (This room is climate controlled to protect the collections housed there, and it can be chilly.) You will be permitted to work with one box at a time. Cameras may be used, without flash, to make reference copies. The use of scanners is not allowed.
Manuscript materials cannot be photocopied by patrons. All photocopies will be made by library staff on a delayed basis, with a limit of 20 copies per week. See the description of our photocopying services for more information and prices. In the event that there is a typed copy or transcript of an original document, the transcript will be photocopied. Any exceptions to this policy will be made at the discretion of the Supervising Librarian of the Special Collections department.
Bound manuscript materials such as account books or diaries, as well as scrapbooks, can be copied by photographic reproduction or microfilming only. Certain other materials may not be photocopied due to the condition of the items or their size (larger than 12” x 17”). The library reserves the right to refuse to copy materials that may be damaged by the process chosen and to prohibit the copying of fragile items.
If you need extensive copying, you may elect to have a manuscript collection microfilmed. The cost will vary depending on the collection size