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Finding, Researching, and Using Primary Resources

Introduction to Archival Searching

There are different search tactics to find primary sources.  Here are some methods to help start finding relevant archival and special collections to you.  The first step, of course, is having your research topic defined and having done some preliminary readings.  Having a clear idea of what information that you need to find or what information will help with the search process. 

As anyone who has done research typically goes from Broad to Narrow focus of research.  Whereas for Special Collection and Archives, to find specific documents relevant for your research, you must go from narrow to board.  The best questions to start your searching are:

  • What records would be produced?
  • When would these records be created?
  • Who would save these records?”

This helps you to figure out what is a reasonable place to start searching and where to start looking.



In historical books, essays, encyclopedias , or news articles may have used archival collections as a source of information for their writing.  Looking at citations can tell you useful collections and series that you can request.  This can be especially useful if you are analyzing the document in a different historiography philosophy than the author.  In the majority of cases, citations of primary resources will point to overarching collections at an institution, not necessarily the specific series where they are pulling documents.  This will require further investigation of the Special Collections and looking at the Finding Aid for finer details.


Finding the Search Terms

Using subject index search is not a good methodology to find or see what archival collections exist.  Part is due to the fact that records will cover too broad of topics.  For example,  correspondences will cover in-depth detail about an individual’s feelings, current events, and drawings over a period of several years.  In some cases, the volume of records prevents a subject index being formed.  Second, most Archival or Special Collection’s search/ retrieval systems will not have “related” search term features or the “Narrow or broader” categories to help with your search.  The third aspect is most archival collections are arranged to preserve the context of which the records are created.

The best search methods are identifying formal names of individuals, corporate names , or full organization names.  This is due to how records are being preserved, it also depends on the institution and how these records were created.  For Example, Ella Baker, the African-American Civil Right Activist, has personal papers at  New York Public Library.  However, her professional’s work papers can be found under Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)’s Record and at National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)’s records. 

Date Ranges

Identifying date ranges of creations.  Having key time frames helps greatly with filtering what are relevant materials while searching for primary resources.  Knowing when an organization was formed or disbanded , when an individual lived where for what duration,  or what years are most relevant to your topic of research.  Answering these questions helps filter when you are looking at the right series.  This also will help Archivist and Special Collections Librarian in advising you on next searching steps.  Case and point, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ California regionally offices regions grow and shrink, changing where records for a specific Native American’s tribes will be stored.  As a result, you may end up going to the National Archives at San Francisco for one year and the next year all records will be stored at the  National Archives at Riverside.