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Research Guides

Archival Research

Getting Started

Background research paves the way for productive archival research.  Use it to get an overview of your topic, to zero in on the details you need to find primary sources, to put archival materials in context, and to help you position your own argument within the scholarly conversation. 

Following are some suggestions and tips for finding background sources.

  • ONESEARCH:  A search in CUNY's OneSearch using keywords and subject terms central to your topic will turn up print and electronic books, scholarly articles, news articles, films, dissertations, government documents, and other primary, secondary, and reference sources.  After a broad initial search, you can sort the results by date, relevance, author or title, and filter results by resource type, topic/subject, date range, language, or source/collection (database). 
  • GC DATABASES:  Our A-Z List of Databases includes over 350 resources.  You can search for particular databases by title, filter databases by type, or search across the list by keyword.  
  • RESEARCH GUIDES:  Library research guides round up the major print and electronic resources in a given area and can quickly point you to reliable sources.  The GC's research guides cover a wide range of subjects and topics, from Anthropology to data management.  Use them to find reference sources, scholarly articles, and to identify the key databases in a subject area.  If we don't have a research guide for a topic you are studying, try a web search to find one at another library.  For example, if you wanted to find reliable sources on the history of South Asia and didn't know where to begin, a Google search formatted like this could help:  "South Asia" LibGuides. (The term "LibGuides" refers to the platform many libraries use to publish research guides.)  Browse the guides to identify potential research avenues and then look for the resources here at the GC Library.  If we don't have something you need, you can usually request it via Interlibrary Loan.
  • SECONDARY & REFERENCE SOURCES:  Consult our Beyond Wikipedia: Background and Reference Sources guide for information on finding and using a wide range of secondary and reference sources in your research.  You'll find tips for finding biographical and genealogical sources, bibliographies, digitized texts, encyclopedias, book reviews, almanacs, and more.
  • GOOGLE SCHOLAR:  Google Scholar provides a simple way to search broadly for scholarly literature, including journal articles and books. The GC Library has created a GC-customized Google Scholar version that links you directly to articles in the library’s databases.  When off campus, you’ll be prompted to log in before you can access library subscription resources.
  • WORLDCAT:  WorldCat Is a catalog and discovery system containing millions of records for print and electronic holdings in every format in thousands of libraries around the world. As with OneSearch, after a broad initial search you can use the available options to zero in on sources close to your topic. Use the links in WorldCat records to request items via Interlibrary Loan if they are not available at the GC. 
  • DISSERTATIONS:  Look for dissertations on your topic.  Dissertations contain original research and can lead you to difficult-to-find primary sources that their authors have tracked down. And their bibliographies may help you identify useful scholarship and background sources as well.
  • GOOGLE BOOKS:  Try searching Google Books to find mentions of people, places, organizations, and events.  A search here is especially useful for gathering information on hard-to-find people. Your efforts may turn up details in a footnote or the text of a book that lead you to sources you may not have found otherwise.  Check OneSearch to find specific titles at the GC Library and request them via Interlibrary Loan if we don't have them.

  • NEWSPAPERS:  Historical newspapers are valuable primary sources that can help you get a sense of the time and place you are studying and see how a subject was viewed and understood in its time.  Newspapers can also fill in the record on people and topics that may not turn up in archival collections.  Be sure to explore alternative press sources as well.  You'll find coverage of new or progressive ideas in radical publications before it appears in the mainstream media.  And you'll also find the voices of marginalized people and organizations in the radical, underground, and independent media.  See our Newspapers Research Guide and NYPL's Conducting Genealogical Research Using Newspapers Guide for ideas.
  • SUBJECT HEADINGS:  Search Library of Congress Authorities to identify subject terms for more effective searching in library catalogs and databases.  Also try a keyword search in OneSearch or WorldCat to find books on your topic.  Then, click on the subject headings in the catalog records of promising titles to find related works on the topic.  

  • Take a close look at the footnotes, bibliographies, and acknowledgements in reference and secondary sources.  They are gold mines for identifying primary sources and finding out which libraries or private collections hold them. 
  • Keep a running list of the names (people and organizations), dates, keywords, subjects, themes, events, and places that come up in your research.  These will be your access points for finding primary sources. 
  • Knowing key names will enable you to recognize relevant sources when you encounter them.
  • Knowing key dates will enable you to navigate manuscript collections arranged in chronological order.
  • Reference and secondary sources can help you decipher documents found in archives.  Letters in manuscript collections exchanged between people who knew each may mention other people, events, ideas, and opinions, but they probably won't define them.  Reference sources can come to the rescue.
  • You can also use background sources to refine a topic and for help developing a research question.