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Archival Research: Finding Archival Materials

Identifying Sources

The research process will take you back and forth between primary, secondary, and reference sources.  Some sources will help answer your research question and others will inspire more questions. 

Manuscripts and archives are just one piece of the research puzzle, one kind of "document" to consider when gathering evidence to answer a research question.  As you consider your research question and think about sources, ask yourself:

  • What types of sources might exist?
    Your research question will help you focus your search.  Studying immigrant populations in 21st century New York City will lead you to investigate an entirely different universe of sources than will research on child labor in 19th century textile mills in New England. 
  • What kind of sources do you hope to find?
    Different formats fill in the record in unique ways.  Do you want to find personal papers (letters, diaries, documents) or organizational records (correspondence, minutes, publications)?  Contemporary newspaper accounts?  Oral histories?  Photographs or moving images?  Statistics?  Maps?  Government documents?  Scholarly books and articles? Objects?  Printed ephemera?  Works of art?
  • Where might the sources have been produced and by whom? 
    Review the holdings of archival repositories in the geographical area central to your topic. Chances are, a local historical society or university or public library in the region may hold collections on the subject.
  • Be creative!  Primary sources are everywhere. 
    When searching for sources on your topic, think about how your topic fits in with the world at large.  Considering an era in terms of its political climate, economic picture, popular culture, world events, art, music, literature, science, fashion, media, and the natural environment may spark ideas that lead you to investigate research angles that may not have occurred to you otherwise.

Search Catalogs & Databases to Find Archival Materials

Following are several databases and catalogs useful for finding archival collections.  Remember that these tools will only turn up collections that have been cataloged and/or described in finding aids contributed to the databases. 

Many repositories hold collections that have not yet been cataloged or described in finding aids, so is useful to identify libraries and archives likely to hold relevant materials to learn about their collections and then to contact the staff with inquires.

Archival Repositories in NYC & Beyond

Researchers In NYC are fortunate to have numerous world class manuscript repositories at our finger tips.  Following are links to the NYPL and N-YHS library pages, where you can find resources for just about any research project imaginable:

The New-York Historical Society

The New York Public Library Research Divisions

See lists of selected NYC Archives & Special Collections and selected International Repositories on the Planning a Visit page of this research guide.

Finding Sources

There are two basic strategies for finding archival collections.  You can:

  1. Search at the repository level to see what materials a particular library collection may hold on your subject
  2. Search Catalogs and databases to identify relevant materials where ever they may exist

Because unpublished archival materials pertaining to a specific person, organization, place, or event can end up in myriad collections scattered among multiple repositories, it is usually a good idea to try both types of searches to be certain you don't miss anything.

Search Tips

  • For the best results, be flexible when you search. Try different combinations of search terms.
  • When searching on personal names, try variant spellings, leave off first names, search whole names in quotes, and try last name, first name.
  • Search for people and organizations as “subject,” “author/creator,” and “keyword.”
  • Search on older terms and spellings in older sources. For example, if you were researching the early history of automobiles in digitized newspapers, you’d likely have better luck using the term “horseless carriages” than “cars” or “automobiles” because that was the term used between 1895 and 1910.
  • Search for materials in multiple places. Try WorldCat, ArchiveGrid and the websites, catalogs, and databases of the libraries likely holding sources on your topic.

Search at the Archival Repository Level

Identify repositories that collect materials on your topic or that are located in the in geographic vicinity of your subject and search their holdings.

  • For example, if your research relates in any way to the history of New York City, you could safely assume that the New-York Historical Society Library would likely hold some relevant material on your topic.  From the N-YHS website, you can search the library's catalog, finding aids for manuscript and graphics collections, and digital collections to discover materials in a broad range of formats.
  • Or if your research relates to theatre productions in the early 20th Century, the New York Public Library's Billy Rose Theatre Division would be a great place to start. 

Five steps for repository-level searching:

  1. Visit the library's website and read about the collection as a whole.
  2. Browse the list of archival collections if there is one.
  3. Search across the library's finding aids if that option is available.
  4. Search the library's regular catalog on your topic.
  5. Speak to the reference staff about your research project.

Finding Archival Repositories

To identify repositories that will likely hold material on your subject, consult: