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Finding Archives: Search strategies

Guide to searching for archival material including where archives are kept, search strategies, archive catalogues, online portals, research guides, and visiting repositories.

“By failing to prepare, you prepare to fail”

Benjamin Franklin 

Why develop a search strategy?

Search strategies help researchers to develop a consistent and well thought through plan to tackle their research.

Knowing what we want to find, and planning the steps that will allow us to find it, makes it more likely we will be successful in locating archive material.

Archives might be deposited in one of any number of possible locations. Each archive item is unique meaning that there are no duplicate copies. As a result, and unlike a library book, a single archive collection cannot end up in multiple locations. This makes it harder to stumble across things so researchers have to be methodical in their approach to finding material.

The following content on this page outlines a suggested approach to take when developing a search strategy.

Where to start

The best place to start is with your note book or laptop and your thoughts.

Thinking things through will help you clarify what you want to find and where you might find it. This will save you time when it comes to searching online catalogues and will help you think through the problem if you hit road blocks and cannot find something you are looking for.

Make a list of what you want to find. Think about:

  • subjects, events, and issues
  • people, groups and organisations
  • type of records
  • time period
  • geographical area

Taking this approach will help you be more targeted in the following stages.

Develop a list of keywords

Employing keywords helps you to be systematic in your searching, which makes it more likely you will uncover as much material as it is possible to find.

Based on the notes from your initial thinking stage, make a list of keywords that describe what you want to find in different ways. Using a variety of keywords systematically across search platforms will help to ensure you don't miss anything.

If you are looking for a person or place, try using variant spellings of a name. The city in which our university is located is generally referred to as 'Hull', though its proper name is 'Kingston-upon-Hull', it might appear in either form in catalogue descriptions. Some personal names can be spelled multiple ways, such as Michelle/Michele or Matthew/Mathew. When recording a name from a letter in a catalogue description, archivists reproduce the name as spelled in the original document. If the author of a document has made a mistake, this mistake will be replicated in the description. Also, it might not be clear what the name is if it has been abbreviated, for example 'M. Jones'; in this case, it might be helpful to use the surname only in one variation of your search.

If you are looking for material on a subject, use a thesaurus and select the most relevant synonyms that can be used to describe that subject. For instance, a research question might ask you to discuss aspects relating to crime, which can also be described using the words 'felony', 'trespass' and 'unlawful act'. To provide an example where this might be helpful; a register of felons is described as such in a catalogue entry to denote the original title of the item, the content of the register relates to criminals and criminal activity but the description would not include the words 'crime' or 'criminal'. Additionally, you could try searching for opposite pairs of keywords; if your research looks at social justice then material relating to social injustice might also be relevant.

Something to be aware of:

The terms we use to describe and discuss a subject change over time. Meanings alter and words can take on new negative or positive connotations; new words are developed to describe old concepts; and in some instances the meaning attributed to one word might change completely. To provide an example, we now use the phrase 'mental health' when discussing psychological injuries and ailments, but this is a relatively modern phrase. In the 18th and 19th centuries, hospitals established to treat patients with mental health conditions were referred to as lunatic asylums; the term 'mental health' was not used, patients were 'lunatics' rather than being 'mentally ill'. It is therefore important to recognise that now politically incorrect and derogatory terms may have been used to describe something from an earlier period, and you might need to employ such terms when searching for material.

Next steps in your search strategy

So, you know what you want to find and you have a list of keywords. What next?

There are several types of resources available when searching for archive material. Individual archive repositories produce archive catalogues to describe their own holdings. These can be searched to find material. There are also a number of online portals designed to bring the catalogue descriptions of multiple repositories together, making it easier for researchers looking for archive material. In addition, archive repositories often produce and publish online research guides relating to particular subject themes and record types. These three avenues are the main ways of discovering archives and each is discussed further on the following pages.

Before moving on, it is worth stating that there is no right or wrong order in which to approach your search, and that you might find yourself retracing your steps a few times along the way.

It is also worth stating that asking the advice of an archivist can often help point you in the direction of material you have not yet discovered. Archivists have detailed knowledge of the collections in their care so you should take advantage of this where possible. Before contacting an archivist, make sure you have an idea of what you are looking for: it comes back to thinking in terms of place, people, organisations, subject and time period.