It is impossible to fully describe every single item in a collection. Through description, archivists try to supply the essential information for a researcher to locate a collection and estimate if it will be useful for a project. There are a few ways a researcher can prepare to best search.
List names and keywords important to the subject. This list will likely grow with further research.
Many search results can be honed by date range. Archivists provide dates when possible to help researchers understand the context in which material was created. For example, letters sent during the Civil War are likely to be different in tone and content than reminiscences penned by a soldier decades later.
Letters, databases, ledgers, diaries, books, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, photographs, maps, are all contained in archival collections. Often the archivist points these out when writing description. Material types can also be targeted through search tools.
Operators help create targeted searches
Use AND, OR, and NOT to find records with or without multiple words: Emerson AND transcendentalism
To search for an exact phrase, include two or more words within quotation marks: "Ralph Emerson"
Finds records containing both words directly next to each other. The example search would not find the phrase "Ralph Waldo Emerson."
Use * to take the place of multiple letters: transcendentalis*
Finds variations of the word, such as transcendentalist, transcendentalists, transcendentalism, etc.
Use parentheses to group multiple search phrases: (Emerson OR Thoreau) AND transcendentalism
Finds records containing both Emerson and transcendentalism OR Thoreau and transcendentalism
Collection guides differ significantly from each other in their level of detail. In some cases, there might be only a few paragraphs for a large collection. In others, each folder is listed. These differences stem from the practical constraints of making collections available for research in the time period they were described - the technologies in use, staff resources, and the descriptive standards in place. The following questions can help researchers think about the description layer. Refer to the Glossary tab of this guide for unfamiliar terminology.
About the creator
About the contents
About the description itself