I'm interested to know whether there are any other professional (or indeed amateur) historical researchers who regularly make use of manuscript archives, or manuscript collections within other archives or libraries?

My reason for this is that I have a few questions that I think would be ideally suited to a crowd-sourced history site, but which would actually be really difficult to structure in a way that would be considered "a good fit" with the History:SE question guidelines.

[In particular, the questions would involve asking about sources - albeit primary sources, but I'm not sure that everyone here makes a distinction (and, to be fair, the guidance pages in the Help Centre aren't exactly clear on that point either). Furthermore, they would probably generate "long-tail" answers which are also frowned upon here.]

Before I spend a lot of time trying to word the questions in a way that might be OK for the SE format, I figure it's worth asking if there is actually a target audience that might be able to answer them. :)

  • I'd say likely not. I've seen answers reference JSTOR on occasion, but even that's pretty rare. Almost all references in answers seem to point out to open online sources.
    – T.E.D. Mod
    Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 10:31
  • @T.E.D. That's what I suspect too. Still, I figure it's worth asking the question. Commented Nov 17, 2017 at 11:00

2 Answers 2


I'm somewhat torn on this. I see pros and cons on both sides, and I suspect the right answer breaks down to what type of site we want to be and what the odds you'll get an answer are.

Many of the questions Aaron asked on California revolve around primary sources or such fine grain details that only someone who actively studied the topic might know (or know where to look) the answer off the top of their head. They're usually very interesting, and certainly worth asking. In fact it would be lovely, in a sense, if this site had more of them.

But there's a line to draw in the sand. To echo Peter's comment on the specific question he raised:

Wouldn't you have to actually read the manuscripts, or at least sample them in order to have an opinion? If so, then you should seek comment from the authors who have referenced them.

Therein lies the rub in my view. I too found the question esoteric enough that reaching out to people who will likely know the answer strikes me as more appropriate than asking on Stack Exchange.

If I am not mistaken, the History SE is more like the Maths SE than the MathOverflow SE. If we aim to be the latter, then by all means ask away. If we're aiming to be more of the former, it's probably fine to post a few as well - you never know. Aaron seems to sometimes get lucky; you might too. But methinks don't post too many, else we'll look like a place where good questions go to die. :-)

  • My guess is that - for now - the odds of getting a useful answer are probably pretty low. Hopefully that will change as the site grows. :-) Commented May 27, 2018 at 0:17

I use manuscript archives (though I will take an existing transcription any day over reading handwriting). Questions about primary sources may not be the most popular ones on here (hmmm) but I see zero reason that they shouldn't be supported.

  • I'd agree in principle, but there does need to be a target audience for the question. For example, one question in my mind that I think would be ideally suited for a crowd-sourced history site (and one which could make a genuine contribution to our understanding of particular historical events) is to do with weather recorded as marginalia in medieval manuscripts from the late 13th / early 14th century onwards. But it does need the inputs from a sufficiently large number of researchers who use those manuscripts. Commented May 27, 2018 at 0:23

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