Written Items - Checklist

Every historical manuscript is unique. But whether you've got a letter, diary, or other handwritten item, the main questions are the same: who wrote it, when, where, and why. You may be able to answer some questions immediately, or you may never find solutions. Adapt your investigation to the item at hand, and enjoy exploring a personal artifact from the past.

  • Prepare to take careful notes of your investigation. You may want to have separate categories for manuscript topics, dates, people, and places.

  • Keep a chronology or timeline of significant events and places mentioned in the text. It will help you visualize the sequence and relationship of facts.

  • Investigate as if a court will view your written report. Think like a detective, and be sure your conclusions are based on fact, not speculation.
  • Where was the manuscript found? When and how? Note the physical surroundings and nearby objects. This may help date the manuscript.
  • What are the materials? Itemize the feel, color, condition and appearance of the writing surface and any binding. Note variations within the item(s).

  • What was the writing instrument? Pencil, quill pen, steel pen? Ink characteristics may help an expert date the manuscript.
  • What does the handwriting look like? Neat or scrawled? Does it seem young and strong, or old and shaky? Are there many errors?
  • Are there stains or dirt? Look closely for clues of inky fingerprints, blood, red clay soil, etc. [Do not clean the manuscript in any way!]
  • Note the exact location and placement of any loose enclosures (e.g. photos, pressed flowers) tucked into the pages. Give each a separate investigation.
  • Look for written dates on the binding, envelopes, covers, etc. Use a strong light and magnifier to look for dates in embossed leather, paper watermarks.
  • Is the volume or collection complete? Are there other diaries and letters in the set? Are any pages missing? Either lost, or torn or cut from a diary?
  • How frequent are the entries? Are diary entries daily or irregular? Are letters bunched by seasons, or written every Sunday? Look for patterns.
  • By reading the text, can you find any clues or signs that the manuscript was written as a draft? Are there edits by the author? References to copying?
  • Does it appear that someone has handled, marked or edited the manuscript previously? Perhaps the author, a family member, or someone else?
  • If faded ink is impossible to read, a qualified expert may be able to help by using UV and IR light techniques, or chemical treatments.
  • What can you deduce about the author's motives or intentions? Is it a travelogue for friends at home? A love letter hidden behind formal prose?
  • Are any obvious topics or events ignored? Are there peculiar silences? What might be the reasons (e.g., calming worried parents) for avoiding issues?
  • What motivates the writer? Can you find patterns of events (e.g., time of day or week, or emotional states) that prompted the author to write?
  • Seek corroborating primary sources, e.g., photos, land records, military service records, newspaper articles, or other documents by the same writer.
  • Consider consulting an archivist or manuscript historian to discuss document dating, historical or monetary value, and long-term care of manuscripts.

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