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Advanced Primary Source Search Strategies

Guide for students seeking out primary sources, especially for historical research.

Advice for accessing hidden primary sources

  1. Do a search for collections, papers, records, etc. related to your topic
  2. Identify institutions (heritage organizations, government institutions, etc.) that hold collections related to your topic
  3. Check online to see what information they have available about their collections
    • Do they have collection guides, finding aids, indexes, a catalog, or some other way for you to identify collections and what's inside them?
    • What level of detail is available to you? Collection description only? Overview of what's in specific boxes? Lists of folders? Lists of items?
    • Can you identify any specific boxes, folders, or items of interest from what they have online?
  4. Make sure that you're far enough into your research to have specific questions or specific types of information or items that you're looking for
    • Have you narrowed your topic enough to be able to ask about specific individuals, specific types of primary sources, a specific time period, etc.?
  5. Contact the staff who work in the library, archives, collections, or a related area of the organization or institution
    • Introduce yourself - this should be a professional email
    • Explain your research with some detail
    • Identify collections they have that are of interest to you
    • Provide specific information about which boxes, folders, items, etc. will help with your research
    • If they don't have information available on their website that helps you be specific, ask them to help you identify material related to your research
    • Provide your timeline - please never contact an institution at the last minute. They are not responsible for your lack of time management.
  6. Staff may respond with clarifying questions - be sure to respond promptly
  7. Be prepared not to receive a response right away, to be told that they don't have the staff to accommodate the level of research your request requires, or to be told that you have to visit in person
  8. Be prepared for potential fees for scanning, research, etc.
  9. If you encounter any challenges working with a heritage institution or organization, consult Amber (Special Collections and Archives Librarian)

Keep in mind

  • Archives and heritage organizations of all kinds may have material that is digitized by not available openly online for a variety of reasons
  • There may be no indication that it's available digitally
  • They may have the information about primary sources available online, but not the items
  • Contact the staff with specific questions and requests to find out if it's possible to get a digital copy
  • Contact staff at heritage organizations early in your research
  • They will not have time to do your research for you so try to have specific items or folders in mind in their collections
  • If you need any help identifying items of interest or contacting staff at heritage organizations, please ask Amber (Special Collections and Archives Librarian) for assistance

Keep in mind

  • There are vast quantities of primary sources carefully preserved in archives of all kinds throughout the world
  • Such a large quantity of material means most of it may never be digitized
  • Archivists and curators create finding aids, collection guides, indexes, catalogs, and other tools to understand what they might have
  • Consult the tools they have available first
  • If you think they may have something specific of interest, contact the staff with specific questions or requests
  • Do not expect the staff to do your research for you - they are likely overworked and understaffed
  • You may be able to request a digital copy of primary sources they hold - but you may have to pay a fee
  • Occasionally interlibrary loan or some other accommodation can be made to give you access - please contact Amber (Special Collections and Archives Librarian)

How to read collection guides

Please download the image to view the commentary on the collection guide layout