“Personal Papers” is a very broad category, but it has always been a central focus of the Manuscript collections. Types of personal papers can include diaries, correspondence, household accounts, family legal records and commonplace books. The collections include nationally significant historical figures such as Roger Williams, Nathanael Greene, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and General Ambrose Burnside. They also include normal Rhode Islanders who had no special notoriety in their own time, such as Providence tailor John Jolls, a Pawtucket blacksmith’s daughter Harriet Bennett and Irish-American domestic servant Helen Gorman.

Many collections are grouped by family, and include papers covering several generations.

Some of the largest family collections are:

  • Aldrich Family (MSS 87), Providence, 1868-1974, 4 subgroups totaling 32 linear feet
  • Brown Family, Providence, 1636-1952, 12 record groups totaling 247 linear feet
  • Greene Family, East Greenwich, 1744-1874, 23 record groups totaling 89 linear feet
  • Hazard Family (MSS 483), South Kingstown, 1698-1979, 56 subgroups totaling 184 linear feet
  • Potter Family (MSS 629), North Kingstown, 1656-1943, 12 subgroups totaling 14 linear feet

Special attention has been devoted to the diary collection. The division has diaries by more than 140 women and 210 men. The Guide to Women’s Diariesprovides detailed biographical information, quotations and cross-references for the women and some preliminary work has been done on a similar guide to the men’s diaries. Six early girls’ diaries were published in the August 1999 issue of Rhode Island History as “By the Pens of Females: Girls’ Diaries from Rhode Island, 1788-1821,” edited by Jane Lancaster. Many of the collections containing women’s diaries and correspondence have been released in a microfilm publication by University Publications of America as New England Women and their Families in the 18th and 19th Centuries: Personal Papers, Letters and Diaries. Series C: Selections from the Rhode Island Historical Society.

The most comprehensive access to manuscript materials is through a paper card catalog located in our Reading Room.  A complete listing of our manuscript collections and detailed inventories for many of them are available in the Reading Room. Electronic versions of the detailed inventories are also available through the Master List of Finding Aids page. Please contact the Reference Librarian for more details about the manuscript collections for which there is no detailed inventory available on this website.

Additionally, many smaller groups of un-cataloged personal papers are interspersed through the Miscellaneous Manuscripts (MSS 9001) collection.  If you are looking for something in particular, please contact the Reference Librarian so we can consult our extensive catalogs at the library.