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Research Guides

Archival Research

Online Archival Research

Though libraries around the world are shuttered because of the COVID-19 crisis, it is still possible to do some archival research online. Libraries, archives, and museums have been digitizing items in their collections for years and sharing them widely.  This page offers tips and suggestions for finding digitized primary sources in subscription databases and on the open web.

Visit the other pages in this guide to find out more about the research process and primary sources in general, to learn about archival finding aids and sources for background research, and for guidance on finding collections, visiting repositories, and using archives in person once libraries are open again.

On This Page:   Getting Started  |  Analog vs Digital  |  Government Archives  |  Highlights  |  International Resources  |  Online Portals  |  Papers Projects  |  Regional Collaborations  |  Research Libraries - Digital Collections  |  Search Tools  |  Subject Collaborations  |  Subject-Specific Libraries & Archives  |  Subscription Databases  |  Texts, Images, Maps, A/V - more links  |  Volunteer Crowdsourcing Projects Why Digitize This But Not That?

Getting Started

The basic steps for digital and analog archival research are essentially the same, with the exception of visiting repositories, of course.  The Research Process tab in this guide outlines some best practices to help you get started.

Once you have drafted a research question, read widely on your topic, and done some background research, you'll likely have a good sense of the people, organizations, places, events, dates, and key themes that are important to your topic. 

You can use those keywords and subject terms when you search digital portals, search engines, library websites, and subscription databases to find digitized primary sources.  Be sure to visit the websites of repositories holding items of interest to discover related materials on your topic.

Analog vs. Digital

It is important to remember that although there are many millions of digitized primary sources online and more content is added every day, the vast majority of unpublished archival material that exists in libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies around the world has NOT been digitized and is NOT available online. 

That said, in-depth research is still possible because libraries have made whole collections available online where once they could offer only highlights.  Also, archival collections that were previously published in microfilm or in printed volumes have since been digitized and turn up in both subscription databases and on the open web.

Search Tools

The following search tools are useful for finding archival collections across repositories.  ArchiveGrid and WorldCat do not have features to easily limit results to digitized items, but you can work through search results to find accessible online materials.  And you can readily access electronic finding aids and collection descriptions that will be essential for continuing research once libraries are open again. 

Because archival materials are kept according to their source (provenance) rather than their subject, it can be helpful to search on the names of people and organizations.  

Large government archives -- national, state, county, town, agency, etc. -- usually have their own discovery tools.  Consult their websites to learn about holdings.  

International Resources

The online portals and archives listed here are a sampling of the resources that exist around the globe.

Online Portals

Online portals and collaborative sites are among best ways to discover digital content. 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 collections that contain them.  Also look closely to determine which repositories hold the original collections. 

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.

Subject-Based Collaborations

Listed here are just a few of the extraordinary open access subject-based digital collaborations one can discover online. Find others with a Google Search. 

For example:  digital archive anthropology or digital archive "civil rights" or digital library "indigenous people" or digital archive "illuminated manuscripts" or digital library posters

Regional Collaborations

Grant funding has made possible much of the digitizing that has been undertaken in libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies. Repositories frequently collaborate on grant applications and then present 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 digitize collections.

Digitized Collections - A Few Highlights

The collections and digital projects included here are meant to illustrate the remarkable depth and variety of resources available. 

These are just a sampling to illustrate the various formats, subjects, and research possibilities that exist in freely available resources on a nearly infinite range of topics.

Digitized Texts, Images, Maps, Audio-Video

Our Beyond Wikipedia research guide is a handy place to quickly access digitized materials on the open web and in subscription databases. See the following pages for more information and links to sources:

Digitized Texts:  All types of texts including books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, transcripts, archives, and manuscripts.

Images: Open source and subscription-based sources of images, photographs, illustrations, etc., from libraries, museums, archives, and other sources.

Maps & Atlases:  Find online contemporary and historical maps and atlases from a variety of open access sources and library subscription databases.

Audio/Video: Access music, spoken word, speeches, radio, film, television, video, documentary, theatre, poetry, oral histories, and more in open access sources and library subscription databases.

Crowdsourcing Projects in the Digital Humanities

Looking for a way to help make digitized primary sources more accessible?  Check out these volunteer opportunities in the digital humanities:

Subscription Databases

Primary document databases can contain entire archival collections of personal papers and organizational records, historical newspapers and other periodicals, images, audio and video, printed ephemera, and other materials. 

In many cases the databases were produced by digitizing previously existing microfilm. Most of these resources are subscription-based and require Graduate Center or New York Public Library network credentials for access.

All of the GC databases are available remotely, while some of the NYPL databases are only available on-site, and thus are not currently available.

Research Libraries & Archives

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

Visit websites of libraries that collect materials in your subject area to look for digitized primary sources.  Many archival repositories have tools that let you search across collections and limit results to digitized materials.

Finding Subject-Specific Libraries & Archives

Government Archives

Government archives, whether national, state, or municipal are quite massive, holding millions of items.  They usually have their own search tools, so when you are looking for digitized government records, you can usually go straight to the website of the agency to look there.

The records can also turn up in places like the Digital Public Library of America, in the Internet Archive, and in subscription databases like Ancestry.com.

Papers Projects

Papers projects collect in one place facsimilies or originals of all the correspondence (and sometimes other papers) of important or well-known individuals. 

There are papers projects in print and online for presidents, scientists, writers, statesmen, and other people well-known in their fields. These projects can be very handy for in-depth research on certain people and topics.

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. Now, vendors digitize previously microfilmed archival collections and historical periodicals 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?