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Getting Started with Archives: Preparing to Search

This guide serves as an introduction to locating and evaluating collection description, and beginning archival research at NYPL

Archival collections range in size from a single document or bound volume to thousands of boxes

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.

Planning a search

Begin with the topic

List names and keywords important to the subject. This list will likely grow with further research.

Identify the time period for potentially interesting material

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.

Consider the type of document which might be useful

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.

Preparing search strings

Operators help create targeted searches


Boolean operators

Use ANDOR, and NOT to find records with or without multiple words: Emerson AND transcendentalism

  • AND locates records containing both words
  • OR locates records containing either word
  • NOT locates records containing the first word, but excludes documents with the second word

Quotation marks

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

Evaluating finding aids

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

  • Who created this collection?
  • What are the roles this person or organization played in society?
  • How can this person or organization be expected to have been affected by a subject?
  • Is it likely that this creator will have interesting perspective on the topic?

About the contents

  • How large is the collection?
  • How was this collection assembled?
  • Is this collection described with enough detail to guess the amount of material for a topic?
  • Do the dates of the collection or series promise pertinent sources?
  • Do the types of materials described typically contain the kind of details sought?

About the description itself

  • Was this collection described or organized recently?
  • Is the archive in the original order as maintained by the creator, or did archivists need to arrange the materials for use?
  • Does the language used provide any insight to the biases of the collection material, or the time period the collection was created or described?
  • Are there terms or phrases to be added to the search term list?
  • Can information about time period of description or granularity of collection processing be inferred from the PDF format?