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Research Guides

Archival Research

Basic Steps

Begin with background research to familiarize yourself with the key names, dates, themes, events, places, and organizations related to your topic.  And think about the kinds of sources you are hoping to find. 

Then search catalogs, databases, online portals, and published sources (books, articles, dissertations, etc.) to discover collections and to find out which repositories hold them.

Once you know where collections are held, search again at the repository level using whatever tools are available.  Read the archival finding aids for the collections you have discovered and speak to library staff about your project.

Search Tools: Catalogs & Databases

Following are some of the major search tools that will help you find primary sources in multiple formats across repositories. Also see the Finding Digitized Resources section for additional suggestions, including coverage of international resources.

For the best results, be flexible when you search, be persistent when you encounter outdated links, and remember that not all collections will have detailed finding aids or catalog records online or at all.  Be sure to also search at the repository level and to speak with reference staff.


Additional Search Tools

Repository-Level Searching

Repository-level searching is an excellent way to to discover primary sources and an essential step in the research process.  When you find a collection that sounds promising for your topic, whether by searching a library catalog, database, digital portal, or Google, or whether you find it by following a footnote or bibliography entry, be sure to take the next step of thoroughly exploring the holdings of the repository. That's because when a library holds an archival collection on your topic, chances are very good that they will have additional primary and secondary sources in various formats relevant to your research. 

Steps for Repository-Level Searching:

  • Visit the library's website to read about the collections as a whole and get practical information for visiting and accessing materials.
  • Look for an A-Z list of archival collections or finding aids on the library's website and spend some time browsing through it.  Unlike keyword searching, which can only turn up what you are looking for, browsing opens up the possibility of discovering collections serendipitously.  
  • Search the library's finding aid database or archival portal if they have one.
  • Check the website for a digitial portal and browse and search digitized collections. 
  • Search the library's regular catalog on your topic to find records for other primary and secondary sources on your topic.
  • Look for research guides, reference tools, or topic guides to help you navigate holdings.
  • And, most importantly, speak to the reference staff about your project. They can help streamline your research and point out helpful resources.

Library Research Guides

Research guides compiled by libraries with with notable resources in particular subject areas are a great way to discover analog and digitized primary sources and reference tools to help you use them.  We have dozens of subject-specific research guides at the GC, for instance, and many other libraries have them as well.  

If you are launching a research project in LGBTQIA+ studies and don't know where to begin, you could try this search in Google to find research guides compiled by libraries that hold materials on the topic:  LGBTQ* AND (LibGuide OR research guide) . (LibGuides is the platform many libraries use for their guides.)

The search will turn up numerous guides, including the GC's own LGBTQ / Gender & Sexuality Studies guide, which contains links to archival and other resources.  Each library's guide will be different and will highlight the books, serials, archival collections, digitized materials, subscription databases, and open web resources  they are recommending to their researchers.  Just be aware that subscription resources linked from guides beyond the Grad Center will require local log in credentials.  Check the GC's A-Z list of databases to see if we subscribe to an electronic resource that interests you.  If not, try the NYPL's databases. You can also request books, articles, serials, microfilmed collections, and other resources via Interlibrary Loan if we do not hold them at the GC Library.

Tips for Finding Materials

Background Research

You don't have to know everything about your topic before you dive into primary sources, but having a basic sense of the people, organizations, places, themes, dates and events central to your topic will help you recognize potentially important archival collections when you encounter them.  See the Background Research tab in this guide and the separate Beyond Wikipedia research guide for tips and links to resources.


Browsing a library's list of collections online, exploring collections whose finding aids seem only only tangentially-related to your topic, reading widely, and speaking to other researchers and library staff are all great ways to open up the chances of discovering relevant primary sources you weren't specifically looking for.  Serendipity can play a big role in discovering sources, so be sure to make time and space for it as you research your topic. 

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.

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 well 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 an A-Z list of holdings on a library's website.

Examples include: A Guide to the Manuscript Collections of the New-York Historical Society and the Guide to the Research Collections of the New York Public Library (also available in the Internet Archive.)

Library Subject Headings

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

Reference Tools

Repositories often have specialized indexes and reference tools that relate directly to their archival holdings.  When available, these can greatly streamline your research.