The Manuscripts Department was established on 11 March 1805.
The history of the national repository of manuscripts and private papers began with the outstanding collection of the Russian diplomat Pyotr Dubrovsky (1754-1816), which he donated for the benefit of the Fatherland. He amassed the items at the latter part of the 18th century while serving as the secretary and interpreter with the Russian Embassy at Paris. In 1805, Alexander I of Russia accepted the collection as a gift to the state and ordered to establish a special "Manuscript Depository" at the Imperial Public Library.
This was the real foundation of the first in Russia state repository of handwritten landmarks, offering public access to them. The "Manuscript Depository" became the first department of the Imperial Public Library.
The department's history may be traced through the main stages of the development of its priceless holdings. In their turn, they, like in a multi-faceted mirror, reflect the history of Russia and a whole kaleidoscope of people who left their mark on world culture, book lovers with their wonderful collections, and the fates of that collections.
The opening of the first Public Library had a great impact on society in Russia: amateurs and scientists, missionaries, diplomats, and military men were inspired to collect antiquities. It may be no surprise that the Library acquired some valuable collections.
Thus, in 1817, the Library bought 160 Old Russian and 65 Eastern manuscripts among other items from the collection of the mining engineer Pyotr Frolov.
Numerical superiority of Western manuscripts characterized the first half of the 19th century, whereas, in the second half of this century, the library holdings were intensively replenished with Old Russian, Eastern and Greek codices. This can be associated with a large surge of scientific interest in such handwritten landmarks.
The second half of the XIX century saw a significant influx of Eastern manuscripts into the library. To this day, the most significant acquisition in term of size (18 000 items) remains the collection of the famous Karaite writer and cleric, traveler, antiquarian and archaeologist Abraham Firkovich.
The Department's collection of Western manuscripts was further enhanced in the course of the 19th century by the addition of the manuscripts from the private royal library, known as the Hermitage collection. The foreign part of the Hermitage collection consists of about 500 handwritten books in Latin and national languages of Western European countries, ranging from the 11th to the first half of the 19th centuries.
In the second half of the 19th century, many archives entered the Manuscripts Department. The sons of the historian Nikolay Karamzin presented his collection of manuscripts; great-grandson of Field Marshal Alexander Suvorov handed over the archive of his great ancestor - the famous "Suvorov Collection". The large archive of Mikhail Speransky, the author of a broad programme to modernize the state system of Russia, was donated by his daughter and Senator G. Repinsky. The heirs of the writer Vladimir Odoevsky gave his extensive archive, including correspondence, manuscripts, diaries, notes, draft autographs. In 1884, a son of Vasily Zhukovsky, a leading figure in Russian literature of the early 19th century, handed over the archive of his father. The Library received Konstantin Batyushkov's manuscripts as a gift from the successors of the poet. In 1888, the archive of the great master of words Ivan Goncharov was received from the writer himself. In 1892, K. Grot donated the archives of his father, the academician Yakov Grot, and the largest figure of Russian classicism, poet Gavriil Derzhavin. The historian V. Bilbasov gave a large archive of the journalist Andrey Kraevsky; the heirs of the writer and publisher Andrey Bolotov brought his handwritten materials as a gift.
The first significant acquisition of the twentieth century was the huge collection of the Rostov industrialist and ethnographer Andrey Titov. The collection of the Rostov merchants' dynasty, founded by Titov’s great-grandfather, numbers 4,676 manuscripts ranging from the 13th to 20th centuries. It is provides a wealth of Russian manuscript books produced in the Yaroslavl and Kostroma provinces. The manuscripts entered the library in 1902, 1909, 1913, 1915, 1947, 1950, 1954, when a six-issue catalogue compiled by Titov himself and a detailed six-volume description of manuscripts were released. The collector did not have time to complete this work.
Among the important private collections of the Old Russian manuscripts received by the Department in the second half of the 20th century, mention should be made of the collection of the retired Colonel V. Gruzdev (1957), the shipbuilding engineer S. Bystrov (1958 , the writer and collector of northern folklore K. Konichev (1963), an engineer-geologist V. Krylov (1978). In this series, there is a remarkable collection of the preceptor of the Old Believers community M. Yepifanov (1987), consisting of vocal music manuscripts spanning the period from the 17th to 20th centuries.
As a result of a focused, systematic acquisition policy, the Manuscripts Department entered the new millennium as the world-famous manuscript repository with valuable holdings. Today, the National Library of Russia does not cease in expanding the scope of its manuscript collection.