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Getting Started with Archives: Sample Searches

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

Sample searches

As described in the Research Catalog tab of this guide, catalog records contain collection-level information. It is recommended to start there, since not only will any archival results be guaranteed to be largely pertinent to a research project, relevant (and possibly rare) printed items will be listed in the returns. Results are organized by relevance by default, however can also be sorted by date.

The Archives Portal contains much more content for a search engine, in the forms of both the collection guides and any appended PDFs. Results can not be as easily or specifically sorted, so Boolean operators are helpful in getting a manageable list. Asking questions of the collection guides to best understand the context of a keyword is essential in deciding whether to make a trip to a Reading Room or to ask for more information. Operators and evaluating finding aids are described on the Preparing to Search tab.

In the catalog

A simple keyword search can be enough to quickly locate materials by or about a person.

Keyword catalog search for Angela Morgan

Here, the Angela Morgan papers are the most relevant return for a keyword search. However, there are also works by Morgan individually cataloged among the search results. A biographer would likely be interested in all of these results. Anyone researching Morgan should note the name authority (and maybe even click through to see what else is cataloged with Morgan, Angela as the author).

Limiting to "Archives and Manuscripts" in the Collection dropbar shows that there are 3 archival collections cataloged as containing material pertinent to Angela Morgan.

Results of Angela Morgan catalog keyword search

In the Archives Portal

If a subject has a unique last name, searching for that only will often yield a manageable set of results (see Quackenbush). However, keyword searching for both given name and surname without operators will often yield too many misleading results (see Angela Morgan).

The way names are listed in archival description can vary. If it is in the title or series description, it will be First Name Last Name. If it is found in a container list or Key Term, it will be Last Name, First Name. For more common name strings, searching "First Name Last Name" OR "Last Name, First Name" is recommended (see "Morgan, Angela" OR "Angela Morgan").

Archives Portal search results for "Angela Morgan" OR "Morgan, Angela" - 8 collections

This search contains five more archives collection records than catalog searching alone.

For some of these records, the context of the keyword will be displayed on the results page.

Yaddo records search results entry

In this case, the result displays that Angela Morgan has a guest file (1926-1940) in the Yaddo Corporation Records series of the Yaddo records. Clicking through on the name will open the container list with the box and folder number highlighted. A researcher can then enter "Morgan, Angela" into the container list filter to see the series description along with the folder information, and then return to the Overview tab to read about Yaddo in general. If Angela Morgan's guest file is interesting in light of these details and the researcher would like to access the folder contents, it is time to reach out to the archivists.

In other cases, the keyword will not be displayed on the results page, which means the term is found in the Overview or narrative of the collection description.

Henry Albert Phillips papers search result

In the catalog

Similarly to a name search, beginning with a basic keyword search in the catalog is often yields a manageable amount of primary and secondary sources.

Keyword catalog search results for Northside Center

These results can then be further honed to "Archives and Manuscripts" material only in the collection dropbar, or for primary sources by the organization by shifting to an Author search, or for sources about the organization by shifting to a Subject search.

Catalog limit demonstration between author and subject

In the Archives Portal

A search for an organization name is similar to a search for a personal name. The most unique part of the formal title should be used, or a defining phrase included within quotation marks.

Archives Portal search results for "Northside Center"

In each result, a researcher should review the Overview tab to get a sense of the context and typical material for the collection. On the container list (if available), the researcher can then filter to the search term for further information, and to locate the relevant boxes and folder numbers.

Robert Bowne Foundation portal record highlighting Northside Center

With all the contextual information, a researcher can decide if the perspective of the collection creator and the materials gathered in the archive might be informative for a project, and connect with librarians or archivists for additional details or to schedule a visit.

In the catalog

Government branches often change names over time, and are often rather generic. The catalog is helpful in locating the different of names for departments, and determining which name would be in use for the time period of interest.

A simple keyword search locates too many results for the New York Board of Education:

Keyword search for New York Board of Education

A researcher can "Limit" or "Modify" this search to get closer to the time period of interest. However the first result serves a good starting point as well. Clicking through to the full record, the name authority is hyperlinked.

Name authority records browse around New York (N.Y.). Education Board

This leads to a list of other name authorities, and connects the researcher to alternative headings and subgroups which might help further target the search.

Using the dropbars, a researcher can then specify only "Archives and Manuscripts" collections are of interest, or change to a Subject search with the name authority if more secondary sources or outside commentary would be helpful.

In the Archives Portal

Information from the individual items and published primary sources located through the catalog might be enhanced by connected material in archival collections. It is unlikely that the New York Public Library holds significant sets of records created by government organizations - these are more likely at municipal, state, or federal repositories. However, individuals or outside groups may have engaged with agencies in interesting ways.

Archives Portal search results for "New York" AND "Board of Education"

Breaking the department name into two phrases returns all collections described using the terms "New York" AND "Board of Education" - which can then be filtered by time period or repository. If a researcher wishes for a larger results set, these phrases can be further parsed into terms (see "New York" AND Board AND Education) or with variant terms (see "New York" AND ("Board of Education" OR "Education Board")).

In each case, the individual collection description needs to be evaluated to estimate what might be present in the archives.


As discussed in previous sections, a researcher should read the collection overview to assess the context of creation. The series descriptions provide more specific information about the types of material present.

In the catalog

The Research Catalog allows for genre searching. Genre terms are incorporated from controlled vocabularies.

Sample genre search in the Research Catalog

The terms used come from controlled vocabularies. A good way to find them is to again locate a source the researcher already knows, and mine the catalog record for the preferred phrasing. Results can be further limited to "Archives and Manuscripts" material, or modified to specific dates or locations.

Catalog genre terms browse list limiting to Archives and Manuscripts

In the Archives Portal

The exact same genre terms will also be located in an archival collection record's "Key terms" list. A full list can be browsed by clicking through on any relevant record's material type link.

Portal Genre results limiting to Diaries

However, for some collections the "Key terms" list is not exhaustive. Using the keyword search will yield more results by combing all of the narrative collection description and container list, in addition to the catalog terms.

Archives Portal search result for diary OR diaries

A researcher can then use the collection details and organizational hierarchy to estimate if the material described is likely to be of interest. Since the language used to describe collections changes over time, for additional results a researcher can create complex searches using wildcards, and then rely on the filters to hone to a manageable list using date ranges and repositories (see diar* OR journal*; "New York" AND photo*).

From the citations in a scholarly source, a researcher can target specific collections and series which might contain more information. This example uses Julie Nicoletta's article "Selling Spirituality and Spectacle: Religious Pavilions at the New York World's Fair of 1964-65," published in Buildings & Landscapes: Journal of the Vernacular Architecture Forum, volume 22, number 2, Fall 2015. It is accessible through the Library via Project Muse.

Clipping from Julie Nicoletta article with citation on the shoulder


Nicoletta's note includes the full title of the archival collection, as well as the box number. The researcher can enter it in either the catalog or Archives Portal to locate the finding aid.


Results page for "New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation records" search


In this case, the finding aid is attached as a PDF through the undefined tab.


Detail from page 19 of the New York World's Fair 1964-1965 Corporation records finding aid

Scrolling down to box 339 on page 19 of the scanned guide, a researcher finds that there are actually two boxes which contain Religion folders as part of the General Files - Participation series. A researcher can then return to the General Files series description for more information about what to expect in these folders.


Is this everything?

While these searches surface all the descriptions which containing the keywords, only the text of collection description is being searched - not collection contents. Minimally described collections do not easily surface. However, archival research is an iterative process. As a researcher learns more about the topic and grows their search term list, it can be worthwhile to repeat searches with new persons, relevant organizations, or keywords. Since researchers do not have endless time, after each search they will again need to appraise collection description to estimate if interesting details could be present, or if less promising collections can go unexplored. 

What if there are no results?

Publicly available archives do not exist for everything. While this is understandable for persons or organizations (correspondence gets lost or is kept in the family; a person's circumstances make them unable to create or keep materials; a business's records are destroyed when it closes), it can be frustrating. NYPL archival collections are representative of a long history of changing collecting priorities and cultural forces.

Often, a researcher needs to think expansively about sources and analyze material closely (and critically) for what is said, and what can be inferred from absences and omissions. 

For some projects, archives can aid a researcher's understanding of the broader material world and cultural atmosphere around a topic, even if the desired exact source is not present in the collections. Librarians and archivists welcome questions and are available for consultations about including archives in research projects.