Research Guides

Archival Research

Online Archival Research

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.

On This Page:   Getting Started  |  Analog vs Digital  |  Archival Search Tools  |  Digitized Collections  |  Diversifying the Digital Historical Record  |  Government Archives  |  Historical Periodicals  |  International Resources  Library Databases  |  Online Portals  |  Oral Histories  |  Papers Projects  |  Regional Collaborations  |  Research Libraries - Digital Collections  |  Subject Collaborations  |  Subject-Specific Libraries & Archives  |  Texts, Images, Maps, A/V - more links  Why Digitize This But Not That?

Getting Started

The basic steps for digital and analog archival research are essentially the same. The main thing to remember is that the digital facsimiles you discover may represent just a fraction of the existing material.

Once you have formulated 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 databases to find digitized primary sources. Be sure to visit the websites of repositories holding items of interest to discover other materials that may be of interest. 

And you can approach your search from a number of angles. These include library databases; big online portals; library websites; subject, format, and regional collaborations; government archives; archival search tools; and web searches. The boxes on this page are organized roughly along those lines.

It can be helpful to approach research with an open mind, to be flexible with search terms, and to think creatively about where you might find sources. Try different approaches and avenues for the most comprehensive results.

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.

It is also important to note that while the individual items and collections that have been digitized were prioritized in some way by the repository (see below), there are countless other equally valuable research materials that have not been digitized. 

International Resources

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

Research Libraries & Archives with 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. 

Oral Histories

See the Oral Histories tab in this guide for tips on finding oral history interviews and collections related to your topic. Interview transcripts and recordings are often available online.

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 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. 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 Collections & Collaborations

Listed below are just a few of the extraordinary open access subject-based digital collections and collaborations one can discover online. One way to find others is with a Google Search.

Try adding digital library or digital collections or digital archive to your subject like these sample searches:  digital archive anthropology or digital library "indigenous peoples" or digital collections physics. Be flexible and try different terms for the best results.

Regional Collaborations & Portals

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 digitized collections.

Diversifying the Digital Historical Record

Diversifying the Digital Historical Record: Integrating Community Archives in National Strategies for Access to Digital Cultural Heritage was a series of forums focusing on community archives integration in a National Digital Platform and the potential impact for representation of diverse communities in our digital cultural heritage. Read an overview of the initiative and watch all four panels.

When searching for sources, try adding the phrase "community archive" to your search string to find collections that include people who are typically left out of the historical record.

Papers Projects

Papers projects collect in one place originals, facsimilies, transcriptions, or bibliographic records 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, politicians, ativists, and other people well-known in their fields. These projects can be very handy for in-depth research on certain people and topics.

Digitized Texts, Images, Maps, Audio-Video

Visit our Beyond Wikipedia research guide to find digitized materials in open access sources and library 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: Photographs, illustrations, and other visual items from libraries, museums, archives, and other sources.

Maps & Atlases:  Contemporary and historical maps and atlases.

Audio/Video: Music, spoken word, speeches, radio, film, television, video, documentary, theatre, poetry, oral histories, and more.

Archival Search Tools

The following search tools are useful for finding archival collections across repositories. 

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

Library Databases

The GC library subscribes to numerous primary document databases that 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 the resources listed below 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.

Finding Subject-Specific Libraries & Archives

Historical Periodicals

Our Newspapers Research Guide is a great place to launch a search for historical periodicals.  You'll find links to subscription databases and open access sites containing national and international, alternative and mainstream newspapers, journals, and magazines. It also includes a page on researching periodicals to help you identify publications relevant to your project. 

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?