Research Guides

Archival Research

Background Research Tips

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, and to help put archival materials in context.

  • Gather the basic facts about your topic and familiarize yourself with the major themes and concerns of the day. 
  • Read books and articles for more in-depth coverage of the people, organizations, and events that are central to your research project.
  • Reference and secondary sources will help you decipher documents in archival collections.  Letters in a manuscript collection exchanged between people who knew each other long ago may mention other people, events, ideas, and opinions, but they probably won't explicitly define them.  Reference sources will come to the rescue.
  • 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.
  • Background research will also help you position your own argument within the scholarly conversation.  
  • You can also use background sources to come up with a topic and for help developing your research question.

Subject Headings - Library of Congress (LCSH)

Search Library of Congress Authorities to identify subject terms for more effective searching in library catalogs and databases.

You can also do a keyword search in the CUNY Library Catalog to find a book on your topic and then click on the subject headings that index that book to find similar titles.  

Catalog Search Tips

Subdivisions added to LCSH (Library of Congress Subject Headings) narrow broad topics and make it easier to zero in on relevant sources in a library catalog search.

For example, a search of the LCSH "New York (N.Y.)" in LC Authorities yields dozens of pages of subdivided headings related to NYC. 

The chart below shows just a few of the common subdivisions you can add to a subject to narrow down results in a library catalog search. 

E.g., "New York (N.Y.) -- Social life and customs"

Description and travel

Economic conditions
In literature

Personal narratives
Pictorial works
Politics and government
Social conditions
Social life and customs






(Source:  Oxford Guide to Library Research, 40-43.)

Keywords:  You can also add keywords to a library catalog search to find primary sources.  Try sources, archives, correspondence, diaries, interviews, narratives, or memoirs.


Bibliographies will help you identify previous scholarship on a topic.  Look for them in books, articles, reference source entries, and as stand-alone works on specialized topics.

Biographical Sources

Since collections are arranged by provenance, a great way to find archival materials is to identify the people central to your topic and then to read about them in biographical sources.  This background reading will not only help put your topic in to context, it will help you find primary sources.  Read through the acknowledgements, bibliographies, and footnotes to discover which manuscript collections and other primary sources the author consulted and then track them down yourself. 


Dissertations contain original research and can lead you to difficult-to-find primary sources that their authors have tracked down.

Scholarly Articles

Following are three sources useful for finding scholarly articles, which can lead you to primary sources.  The first focuses on U.S. history while the others are multi-disciplinary and great for research on a wide range of topics.  Consult the research guides in your subject area for additional suggestions.

Beyond Wikipedia Research Guide

Consult our Beyond Wikipedia: Background and Reference Sources research guide for information on finding and using a wide range of secondary and reference sources in your research.

General Reference Sources

References sources are a great place to begin your research.  Use online and print reference titles for inspiration and to find topic overviews, definitions, dates, and facts that will ground your research.

Browse the Library Stacks Virtually or In Person

Use the Library of Congress Classification system to find the call number for your subject area.  Then, browse the general and reference shelves in the library to discover books on your topic. 

You can also browse the shelves virtually by Call Number, Subject, Author, Series, or Title using the Browse Search option in OneSearch .

Serendipity can lead you to titles you never thought to search for and enhance your research in unexpected ways.

Google Books

Search 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. 

Genealogical Sources - Reclaim the Records

Reclaim The Records is a not-for-profit activist group of genealogists, historians, researchers, and open government advocates who sue government agencies and archives to obtain access to public records. 

Reclaim The Records digitizes everything they win and posts it online for free for all to use without restrictions.  They have so far made available indexes to birth, marriage, and death indexes in several states, including New York and New Jersey.  And they have multiple outstanding FOIA requests for nationwide records and state-level records across the U.S. 

Genealogical Research

The New York Public Library's Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy, just a few blocks north of the Graduate Center in the 42nd Street Library, is one of the largest genealogical collections in the U.S. and the ideal place to to conduct in-depth research on people, places, and events in NYC and beyond.

The Milstein Division's Research Guides, including Genealogical Research at the NYPL, Genealogy Research Tips: Breaking Through Brick Walls and Getting Past Dead Ends, and The Great Obituary Hunt highlight the best resources and offer strategies for finding elusive information.


Well-researched scholarly books on your topic can help you make sense of manuscript collections and lead you to other useful primary and secondary sources. 

Be sure to mine the footnotes, bibliographies, and acknowledgements to discover which sources the author consulted and then track down the most promising ones for your own research. 


Get a feel for the time period you are studying by browsing a chronology.  See suggestions on the Timelines page of our Beyond Wikipedia research guide. 

Historical Newspapers

Seek out newspapers contemporary to your research topic and read them to get a sense of the time and place you are studying. 

  • Historical newspapers are great primary sources that can help you understand how a subject was viewed and understood at the time. They also fill in the record on people and topics that may not turn up in archival collections.
  • Don't forget the alternative press!  Many ideas that are accepted today were considered radical when they were first introduced. You'll find coverage of new or progressive ideas in radical publications before it appears in the mainstream media.  And you'll also hear the voices of marginalized people and organizations in the radical, underground, and independent media.

These research guides are an excellent place to start:

Newspapers Research Guide

Conducting Genealogical Research Using Newspapers - NYPL Guide