You will find references to manuscripts of potential interest for your research in a number of sources, chiefly:
- Citations in secondary literature (studies) relevant to your topic
- Bio-bibliographical surveys (such as Brockelmann, Sezgin, Storey, Hofman, etc.)
- Catalogues and handlists (for collections, exhibits, and dealers)
Secondary literature is especially helpful for identifying points of departure for your corpus and method -- a few exemplary manuscripts exhibiting the features of interest to you (be they textual, visual or physical) and approaches to their study.
Bio-bibliographical surveys (cf Bio-bibliographical surveys) are especially helpful as you begin a manuscript census of witnesses for particular works or works attributed to a particular author.
Catalogues and handlists (cf Finding catalogues) are essential for expanding your corpus regardless of topic, and are especially helpful for identifying manuscripts by historical period and locale (that is, copied, read, owned, etc at a particular time and/or in a particular place). Of course specialized catalogues such as those addressing particular painting styles or artists, watermarks, bindings, transmission certificates or hands (eg palaeography albums) will also be helpful as both a point of departure and to expand your corpus.
- If your project involves compiling a substantial corpus (or even a comprehensive census) of manuscript witnesses for a particular work, you might begin with citations in the relevant literature and listings by author, title and subject in the bio-bibliographical surveys, but would then go on to check as many catalogues and handlists as possible (browsing beyond title to author and subject given the number of title variants you may encounter). Knowledge of collection strengths and scope can help make this project more manageable, and surveys (such as "catalogues of catalogues") are essential.
- If your project addresses historical, palaeographical or codicological phenomena, you might begin with the relevant literature and theoretically proceed on to suitably structured catalogues which allow for search or browse by such features as date, place of transcription, names (of copyists, collators, former owners, readers, auditors, etc), hand, type of ornament, presence of illustrations, and or physical qualities such as structure (composition of gatherings, sewing, and cover), dimensions, writing surface, layout, etc. However, catalogues at this level of detail have not been prepared for many collections and you will therefore find it necessary to identify manuscripts of potential interest on the basis of the limited features noted in whatever catalogue is available (confirming when you examine the manuscript).
Once you have identified manuscripts of potential interest (or even an entire collection), you should also consider where they are currently kept and how accessible they are.
- Is a catalogue or handlist for the collection available and if so where? (obviously if you identified the manuscript(s) this way you already know the answer)
- Are reproductions available for your use? In what format(s) and at what cost?
- Can the collection items themselves can be physically examined or only surrogates (for example digitized photographs or microfilm)?
- Where is the repository located? Is visiting the repository financially and logistically feasible? Are official permissions necessary? Do you have any personal connections (with librarians, curators, advisors, etc) that you could leverage to gain access?
Feel free to be in touch for advice with navigating catalogues, collections, and description.