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Introduction to Archival Research

Get started understanding how to find and use archival collections in your school work, professional research, or family research.

Finding archival collections

You may be used to databases, like Prospector or WorldCat, that allow you to search the collections of many regional, national, and even global libraries at the same time. Unfortunately, there is not one centralized location to search for archival material across many institutions.

Though most archives have Finding Aid guides that describe their collections, these Finding Aids are not always available on a searchable platform like ArchivesSpace. Sometimes, you need to contact the archive directly to ask for a copy of the Finding Aid for the collection you would like to see.

The following are some recommended methods of finding an archives that holds material relevant to your research:

ArchiveGrid

This database brings together collection descriptions from many archives, libraries, and museums in the US and abroad. 

Keep in mind:

  • ArchiveGrid does not represent the collections of all archives.
  • An ArchiveGrid search may only search within the abstract descriptions of archival collections. It likely will not reveal relevant series, folders, or items from within full collection Finding Aids.

The most thorough search of an archives' collections will be from the website, database, or other resources created by that individual archive.

WorldCat

This global database of library materials sometimes includes records of archival collections.

Under "advanced search," scroll to "Format" and choose "Archival material." The WorldCat record for an archival collection will usually link to the Finding Aid or repository that holds that collection. 

Google search

Try a Google search with the name of the person or organization that interests you, followed by "archives," "collection," or "papers." 

For example: A search for "Fred Rogers" on ArchiveGrid or WorldCat does not find a collection of personal papers from the childrens' television star and creator of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. However, a Google search of "Fred Rogers papers" does lead to the Fred Rogers Archive, held in the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children's Media at St. Vincent College.

Professional and community organizations Often, specialized organizations like the History of Education Society or the Labor and Working-Class History Association will compile directories of archival repositories or collections relevant to their field, available on their websites or other organization platforms. Outside of scholarly organizations, you may consult specialty community groups. For example, the Filipino American National History Society maintains the National Pinoy Archives in Seattle
Footnotes Check the footnotes of books and articles you've read about your topic for references to relevant archival collections. The repository referred to may have other collections related to that topic as well. 
Word of mouth Ask your instructors and colleagues. Often, researchers in a certain field come to know which archives are the best to visit for material on that subject.

Sometimes the most difficult part of searching an archive is navigating their website to locate their collection descriptions! If you're having trouble, don't hestitate to contact the repository or institution for assitance. No matter how prestigious or grassroots the institution, the archives are meant to be used, and the archivists want to help researchers access their material. 

 

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