Manuscripts and Archives

Detailed catalogues of many archive collections are available online through ELGAR (Electronic Gateway to Archives at the Rylands). The Guide to Special Collections provides the best overview of the manuscript and archive collections.

Our manuscripts and archives are internationally important. Their subject range is extraordinarily diverse, and the material has great potential as source material for a vast range of research interests. Chronologically, the collections span many centuries, from the 3rd millennium BC to the 21st century. There is also a very wide range of formats. Virtually every medium that has ever been used for writing can be found in our collections.

Holdings of individual manuscripts now cover more than fifty languages, including all the major European and Middle Eastern languages, and numerous Far Eastern ones too. The subject range is vast, encompassing literary, historical, antiquarian, genealogical, biblical, devotional, ritualistic, medical, scientific, legal and administrative texts. The majority of manuscripts were acquired when Mrs Rylands purchased the collection of the Earls of Crawford in 1901.

The European manuscripts include hundreds of medieval codices (manuscript volumes). There are gospel books, psalters, books of hours and devotional works of great beauty and significance. The Library holds one of the most important Middle Eastern manuscript collections in Britain. All the major languages of the region are well represented, with hundreds of codices in Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish and Persian.

There are also scores of cuneiform clay tablets from Sumeria, and thousands of papyrus fragments in many languages. The most famous fragment is the piece of St John's Gospel, which is believed to be the earliest example of New Testament writing in existence.

The Far Eastern manuscript collections are also extraordinarily diverse, including texts written on palm-leaf, bamboo, bark and bone.

The Library first acquired archive collections in the 1920s when local landed families were invited to donate or deposit their papers. In addition to extensive family muniment and charter collections, the Library now holds the archives of hundreds of companies, trade unions, charities, social organizations and religious institutions, as well individuals. Particular strengths include:

  • Nonconformist archives, especially archives of the Methodist Church, the Wesley family and other pioneering Methodists;
  • Modern literary archives, including the archive of Carcanet Press and many individual writers;
  • Archives of the University of Manchester, and papers of individual scientists and academics, such as John Dalton;
  • The archive of the Manchester Guardian newspaper is a key resource for a wide range of research interests.