Find Collections | General Search Tips | Catalogs & Databases | Digitized Collections | Notes on Catalogs & Databases | Primary Source Databases | Privately Held Collections | Published Guides to Manuscript Collections | Repository-Level Searching | Repository: NYPL Manuscripts & Archives Division | Search Tools - Add'l | Searching Secondary Sources | Selected International Repositories | Subject Headings (LCSH) | WorldCat & ArchiveGrid Search Tips
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.
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.
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 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.
You can find others with OneSearch, WorldCat, or other library catalog subject search. Some examples:
New York (State)--History--Sources--Bibliography
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.
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.
See the Digitized / Printed / Microfilmed Sources page in this guide for tips on finding published archival materials.
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.
The following search tools will help you find archival collections across repositories.
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.
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.