Research Guides

Archival Research

Find Collections

Finding archival collections is often a multi-step process. 

1)  Once you've done some background research and are familiar with the key names, dates, themes, events, and organizations related to your topic, search catalogs, databases, and published sources (books, articles, dissertations, etc.) to discover collections and to find out which repositories hold them.
2)  Once you know where collections are held, visit the websites of the libraries holding the collections and search again at the repository level.  Ideally, you will be able to read finding aids for the specific collections you have identified, and also discover related materials on your topic.

Searching a repository's holdings directly will help you identify other archival collections of interest as well as books, newspapers and journals, pamphlets, photographs, prints, drawings, cartoons, posters, oral histories, maps, ephemera, objects, and published manuscripts in print, on microfilm, or in databases.

And because materials pertaining to a specific person, organization, or event often end up in multiple repositories, it is a good idea to search ArchiveGrid and WorldCat as well as individual repositories to be certain you don't miss sources relevant to your project.

General 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.
  • Browse the “categories” section of the Oxford English Dictionary online to explore disused, archaic, and regional terms.
  • Search for materials in multiple places. Try ArchiveGrid, WorldCat Discovery, and the websites, catalogs, and databases of the libraries likely holding sources on your topic.
  • Use keywords such as sources, archives, correspondence, diaries, interviews, narratives, or memoirs to find primary sources in a library catalog.

Repository Level Searching

Use catalogs, databases, and secondary sources to identify repositories that collect materials on your topic or that are located in the geographic vicinity of your subject and search their holdings.  Or make an educated guess. 

If your research relates in any way to the history of New York City, for instance, you could safely assume that the New-York Historical Society Library would likely hold some material on your topic. 

  • From the N-YHS website, you can (1) browse an alphabetical list of processed archival collections, (2) search across the library's archival finding aids, (3) explore digitized holdings, and (4) search the library's online catalog 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.  Researchers will find valuable search tips and strategies on their website.

Repository-Level Searching:

  1. Visit the library's website to read about the collections as a whole and get practical information about the repository.
  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. Look for a digital portal on the website and search there as well.
  6. Speak to the reference staff about your research project. They can help streamline your research and point out helpful resources.

Searching Secondary Sources to Find Archival Materials

Secondary and reference sources will not only help you put your topic in context, they will often lead you directly to archival collections.

Check the footnotes, bibliographies, and acknowledgments in books, dissertations, and other published sources for clues. You may learn about cataloged and uncataloged materials held in libraries and/or private collections.

See the Background Research tab in this guide and the separate Beyond Wikipedia research guide for tips and links to sources.

Published Guides to Manuscript Collections

Published guides to manuscript collections can be easily overlooked in the quest to find archival materials.  However, these printed volumes, many of which were compiled in the pre-computer age, can be useful for identifying specific holdings and for getting a sense of a library's collections as a whole.

These guides typically contain summary descriptions of individual collections and indexes that allow you to identify holdings by subject or format. Though the descriptions in these printed volumes may have been superseded by subsequent archival processing and electronic finding aids, they situate individual collections within a library's holdings and offer more collection level detail than you'd usually encounter in a list of holdings on a library's website.

Examples include:


You can find others with OneSearch, WorldCat, or other library catalog subject search.  Some examples:

United States--History--Sources--Bibliography
New York (State)--History--Sources--Bibliography
Great Britain--History--Sources--Bibliography
Manuscripts--United States--Catalogs
Manuscripts--[any country]--Catalogs
[Any Subject]--Manuscripts--Catalogs

Finding Materials in the NYPL Manuscripts & Archives Division

Look on the The New York Public Library's website for a handy guide to Finding Materials in the Manuscripts and Archives Division

And consult the NYPL's Getting Started with Archives guide.

Note that many large research libraries have helpful online guides for finding and using their collections.  Look for them when you visit a library's website to expedite your research.

Subject Headings - Library of Congress (LCSH)

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

Or try a keyword search in CUNY's OneSearch or other library catalogs to find books on your topic.  Then, look at the Library of Congress subject headings (LCSH) used to describe those books and click on the most relevant LCSHs to identify other library materials on the topic.  Keep track of the most useful LCSHs and use those subject terms when searching other databases as well.

Finding Published Archival Collections

See the Digitized / Printed / Microfilmed Sources page in this guide for tips on finding published archival materials.

Privately Held Collections

These are collections held by individuals, families, and estates.  They may consist of processed or unprocessed materials and they may or may not be accessible to researchers.  You can often discover the existence of private collections through your background research or by contacting people close to your subject.

Catalogs & Databases

The following search tools will help you find archival collections across repositories. 

Additional Search Tools

Selected International Archival Repositories & Portals

Notes on Catalogs & Databases

Searches in databases like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid can only turn up collections that have catalog records or archival finding aids that were uploaded to those databases.  But not all collections have catalog records or finding aids. 

To find collections that are not included in the major search tools, identify libraries and archives that are likely to hold materials on your topic and search at the repository level.  Look closely at library websites, explore lists of collections, search what ever tools are provided, and contact the staff with inquires.  You can also try searching large digital portals like the Digital Public LIbrary of America to identify libraries that hold collections on your topic and then visit their websites to search further.

Large government archives -- national, state, county, town, agency, etc. -- usually have their own search engines and discovery tools instead of contributing collection descriptions to databases like WorldCat and ArchiveGrid.  So visit government archive websites directly to learn about their holdings and how to research them.  

Primary Source Databases @ the GC

The GC Library subscribes to more than three dozen databases that contain digitized primary sources.  These databases cover virtually every subject area and include books, pamphlets, broadsides, printed ephemera, journals, historical newspapers, video, manuscripts, diaries, letters, images of artworks, dramatic productions, government documents, classical literature, legal documents, data, underground comics, and more.

Also see our Newspapers research guide for information on and links to digital editions of current and historical, domestic and international, mainstream and alternative newspapers and journals.