Skip to Main Content

Research Guides

Archival Research

Analog vs. Digital

Before diving in to digitized sources, it is important to remember that although there are many millions of digitized primary sources accessible online, the vast majority of unpublished archival material that exists in libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies around the world has not been digitized and is not available online. The digitized sources at a given repository will usually represent just a fraction of their holdings on a topic.  Digitized sources are exceedingly convenient and readily accessible but there may be equally valuable resources for your project that are only available on paper in folders and boxes in repositories. 

Finding Digitized Materials

There are many places to search for digitized primary sources.  These include large-scale digital portals, the websites of research libraries, archives, and museums, the websites of regional and subject collaborations, government archives websites, international digital portals, library subscription databases, and on the open web.

The key thing to remember is that the digital facsimiles you discover may represent just a fraction of the existing material on your topic in a repository.

Library Databases

Library suscription databases contain primary sources in a wide variety of formats including manuscripts and archives, historical newspapers and periodicals, laws, legislation, legal documents, pamphlets, broadsides, books, printed ephemera, letters, diaries, oral histories, audio, video, images, maps, speeches, interviews, government documents, data, underground comics, graphic novels, and more. 

In many cases, the databases were produced by digitizing previously existing microfilm. The original microfilm reels might be available to borrow via interlibrary loan if we do not have access to the subscription database at the GC.  Some microfilmed collections are also available in the Internet Archive.

Online Portals

Online portals are among best ways to discover digital content.  And they can help you find analog materials as well.  These platforms make it possible to search in one place for primary sources related to a particular person, subject, region, or format that are scattered across multiple institutions.

When search results turn up individual items, be sure to click on links to explore the full collections they belong to, and trace further back to the holding repository.  

Browse results by contributing institution, when possible, and visit the websites of those institutions to look for other materials on your topic.  Many archival repositories have tools that let you search across collections and limit results to digitized materials.  Keep in mind that the digital items that turn up in online portals may represent just a fraction of the materials a library holds on a topic.

Subject-Based Portals & Collections

Listed below are just a few of the extraordinary open access subject-based digital collections and collaborations available online. Find similar resources by visiting the websites of libraries that cover your subject area or try a Google search formatted like the examples below. 

  • "indigenous peoples" AND (digital OR digitized) AND (library OR collection OR archive)
  • physics AND (digital OR digitized) AND (library OR collection OR archive)
  • anthropology AND (digital OR digitized) AND (library OR collection OR archive)

Digital Libraries / Regional Portals / Digitized Collections

The following research libraries have notable digital collections. This list is just a sampling of the remarkable resources you can find online. Be aware that in most every case, the digitized items available represent only a small fraction of a library's holdings.

To find digitized primary sources for your own research project, visit the websites of libraries that collect materials in your subject area.  And be sure search across collections when possible and then limit results to digitized materials, if the option is available. 

Grant funding has made possible much of the digitizing that has been undertaken in libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies. Repositories frequently collaborate on projects and then share their digitized holdings together in regional portals. 

Following are a few examples of some of the excellent resources that are available.  Look for repositories where your subject is based to find digitized collections.

Why Digitize This But Not That?

There are many reasons why some materials might be digitized while others might not:   

  • Some items, like documents in national archives, may be considered to have high research value for a wide audience.
  • Or collections might be in high demand locally and the originals could be at risk of damage from over-use. 
  • Collections that belonged to a well-known person or organization might be deemed important because of their provenance
  • Or they might be visually compelling. Photographs and other images are more dazzling than handwritten documents.
  • Another common reason for digitizing is preservation.  When documents are too fragile to use, they might be microfilmed and/or digitized to preserve access to the information. 
  • Sometimes materials are given to a library along with funds to process and digitize them.  And sometimes repositories acquire grant funding on their own or in collaboration with other institutions to digitize collections they want to make more widely available.
  • There can be a commercial motive too. In analog times, collections were microfilmed for preservation and/or to extend access. Today, vendors digitize previously microfilmed archival collections and historical periodicals, add bells and whistles, and sell them to libraries in subscription databases. 

Read more about the topic on the Peel Art Gallery Museum & Archive's blog:  Why Don't Archivists Digitize Everything?