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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Finding Primary Sources of Music in Libraries and Archives

A guide to identifying, locating, and accessing primary sources (including manuscripts, early editions, programs, interviews, and more). This guide covers both digital and physical collections.

What Primary Sources Exist on My Topic?

Depending on the subject you're researching, it may not be immediately obvious what kinds of primary sources are available to you. We've collected resources to help you identify what kinds of primary sources survive for the specific work you are studying.

In particular, this page focuses on tools to find manuscripts and early printed editions, as those source types can be particularly tricky to track down.

Although many early editions and manuscripts exist only in particular libraries and archives that you might not be able to access in person, there are many online versions and facsimiles that you can search for once you know exactly what you're looking for. Once you've used the tools on this page to identify what sources exist, refer to the page on Facsimiles & Digital Copies for help locating reproductions of these primary sources that you can use in your research.

General Tips: Where to Look First

If you are trying to track down what manuscripts and early printed editions exist for a particular work or composer, consulting the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians or the composer's thematic catalog are excellent places to start.

In Grove, the "Works" list included in the article for a particular composer includes a column for "publication; autograph". This information can help you identify early editions.

A composer's thematic catalog includes similar information, listing the surviving manuscripts (including both autographs - manuscripts written in the composer's own hand - and copies) and where they are located.

RISM (Repertoire International des Sources Musicales) is another key resource you should consult. RISM is an ongoing scholarly project to document the existence of printed and manuscript music. Even though the emphasis of manuscript cataloging is on the years 1600-1850, you will find both older and newer sources in the online catalog. Check out the next page, Using RISM, for tips and instructions to guide you.

Specialized Tips

In addition to the general tips above, there are several other resources you may want to consult depending on your research area. The sources recommended below include databases and catalogues of manuscript and early printed sources for particular research concentrations. You can use these lists as a reference point to identify what early sources exist for the work you are studying and what library or archive holds them. 

Tracking Down Manuscript Sources

Many libraries have begun digitizing their primary source materials. This tab collects general places you might search, portals to catalogs that let you browse the collections of archives around the world, and lists of national libraries and archives to check out. For more specialized recommendations, check out the other tabs in this box.

Once you know which library owns a specific manuscript or edition, check the library's website to see if a digital image is available.

There are three thorough articles published in the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (accessible via Oxford Music Online, below, or through the individual links listed below) that are excellent guides to manuscripts of early instrumental music. We are also linking a print bibliography of 16th century instrumental music at the bottom of the box.