What is a manuscript?

manuscript is a resource written by hand.

folio is a leaf or page of a manuscript. The front side of the folio is called the recto, and the back side of the folio is called the verso.

Illumination is the decoration on a manuscript.

A facsimile is a reproduction of a manuscript, book, map, piece of art, etc. which accurately replicates the scale, materials, color, condition, etc. of the original resource. A partial facsimile is a reproduction of only part of a resource. Facsimiles are used by researchers who cannot access the original resource, and by libraries and museums to allow a form of access to resources while preserving the originals.

Codicology is the study of the structure and physical features of a manuscript.

Paleography is the study of handwriting. 

Diplomatic is the study of the conventions and formulae of documents.

How to cite them?

The purpose of a manuscript citation is to 1) locate the manuscript, and 2) locate the place in the manuscript being referenced.

A manuscript citation contains the following: title of manuscript (optional), location of repository, name of repository, manuscript number, folio or section of manuscript.


White Book of Rhydderch, Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, Peniarth MS 4, f. 63r

A few notes:

  • This manuscript is manuscript four in the Peniarth collection.
  • MS is the abbreviation for manuscript.
  • Folio is abbreviated as "f.".
  • Recto and verso are abbreviated as "r." and "v." respectively.

Manuscript Studies Resources

book cover

Introduction to Manuscript Studies

Raymond Clemens & Timothy Graham 

This resource describes in detail the process of making a manuscript and defines the various parts of a manuscript. It also explains how to read a manuscript, and gives examples of some of the common genres of manuscripts.

Resources at Harvard

Finding Manuscripts in HOLLIS

Strategy 1: Call numbers

In the Advanced Search form within HOLLIS, use the "Code: Local call number" Search Filter (via the drop-down option) to search for MSXX*, where "XX"  stands in for HOLLIS’s abbreviation for the desired language. For example:

MSINDIC* is the call number for manuscripts in Sanskrit, Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, and other Indic languages.

MSSAN* is for Sanskrit language manuscripts.

MSTAMIL* is for Tamil language manuscripts.

Strategy 2: Resource Type limits

In the Advanced Search form within HOLLIS, type in a keyword (e.g., Tamil) and then chose the Resource Type "Archives/Manuscripts" (via the drop-down option). Run the search. 

Strategy 3: Language option(s) and keywords

This approach will retrieve a variety of material types, but it also captures some manuscripts, and you may use the Resource Type limit listed in Strategy 2 to filter the results after the fact.

Here's how to do it: In the Advanced Search form within HOLLIS, use the "Code: MARC language" Search Filter (via the drop-down option) to select your preferred language (e.g., Sanskrit) or select it from the Language drop-down menu on the right. You may combine this approach with either Strategy 1 or 2 above, or enter the following keyword phrase, which may surface manuscripts that were not systematically described as such in the system: hand OR hands OR manuscript*. This is the most arbitrary of the strategies, since many manuscripts do not include language codes in their cataloging.

South Asian Manuscript Collections

Many manuscripts are preserved as part of library collections. A number of them have been either transcribed into digital texts, or have actually been digitized as images.

Searching for Manuscripts in WorldCAT

WorldCAT is a union catalog that allows you to search the collections of over 41,000 member libraries, mainly in the United States, but also extending to 82 other nations. Once connected to WorldCAT, proceed as follows:

  1. Choose Expert Search.
  2. Under Limit Type To, choose “Archival Materials.”
  3. Under Subtype Limits below that, choose “Any Format”>”Manuscript.”
  4. Finally, enter your search terms, whether in the form of a subject heading, title word, author name, or keyword(s).

Once you have results, you may further limit, using the button on the results page that shows two arrows pointed at each other.

A Census of Indic Manuscripts in the United States and Canada

Compiled by H.I. Poleman (American Oriental Series)

National Mission for Manuscripts

The National Mission for Manuscripts seeks to unearth and preserve the vast manuscript wealth of India. It was established in February 2003, by the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, Government of India. In addtional to manuscripts, almost all of their publications are available as PDFs; see the “Books” tab on the website.

The Sanskrit Library

A digital library dedicated to facilitating education and research in Sanskrit by providing access to digitized primary texts and computerized research and study tools to analyze and maximize their utility. Scholars, students, and the general public interested in the vast knowledge composed in Sanskrit in India and elsewhere over more than three millennia are invited to use this web site.

The Sanskrit Library, catalog index

Harvard’s Sanskrit manuscript collection is held and curated by Harvard’s Houghton Library. A sub-set of records for the collection are available via this tool; simply choose “Harvard” as institution. To consult the materials you discover, begin with a HOLLIS Special Request. Please note that the Sanskrit Library’s records of Harvard’s holdings have not been loaded into HOLLIS yet. A digitization project of the collection is underway. Additionally, it is important to note that not every Harvard holding listed in A Census of Indic Manuscripts in the United States and Canada has been digitized and included in The Sanskrit Library. Therefore, some of them remain uncataloged and unavailable online, so it is important to consult with a librarian at Houghton to gain access. The Census of Indic Manuscripts in the United States and Canada
includes all manuscripts, including many at Harvard Library, in Sanskrit, Pali, Prakrit (older and modern), various Dravidian languages, and languages of Burma, Ceylon, Siam, and Tibet. The complete list can be found in the table of contents. For the most part, only texts composed before 1800 have been included.

Buddhist Digital Resource Center

This database offers keyword searching and full text in TIFF or PDF format of Tibetan texts, especially Buddhist works. Transliteration and searching is in Wylie. Texts are browsable by tradition or category; they may be searched via the Knowledge Base. Some works also have searchable detailed outlines. Please note that not all texts discoverable through the Knowledge Base are available online. For texts not available online in the Core Collections, please contact BDRC directly. As of August 2020, the BDRC launched a new site, called BUDA that allows individuals to register for personalized accounts.

South Asian Manuscripts at the Library of Congress

Digital Corpus of Sanskrit (DCS)

A Sandhi-split corpus of Sanskrit texts with full morphological and lexical analysis. The DCS is designed for text-historical research in Sanskrit linguistics and philology. Users can search for lexical units (words) and their collocations in a corpus of about 4,600,000 manually tagged words in 650,000 text lines.

British Library Manuscripts

The British Library collection contains ancient, medieval, modern, and contemporary manuscript and archive material from around the world. The  collections include historical, literary, political, scientific, and religious papers as well as maps, charters, seals, rolls, and papyri.

British Library Digitized Manuscripts

The British Library website contains descriptions of the manuscripts in its vast collection. Digital images of some of these can also be accessed.