Undergraduate Research Methods
Librarian for History, History of Science & Technology, and Africana Studies
This guide will explain how archival materials are kept, described, searched and accessed at the Sheridan Libraries Special Collections. This does not pertain to rare books. Those materials can be found in Catalyst, the Sheridan Libraries' catalog.
When archivists describe collections, they create finding aids, or inventories that summarize a collection’s contents. Finding aids for our archival materials are found at Johns Hopkins University’s finding aids site, ArchivesSpace.
If you ever need help with your research topic (no matter where you are in that process!), reach out to us at email@example.com.
How Materials Are Organized
Archival materials are organized around the person or organization who created or collected them. Because people (and groups) are involved in many activities, relationships, and institutions over the course of their lives, it is not always easy to find which archival materials are about particular ideas.
For instance, the Ferdinand Hamburger University Archives holds records documenting innovations in the history of higher education. However, there is no such thing as the “Higher Education history archives.” Instead, it’s often good to start with non-archival readings (encyclopedia articles, scholarly articles, books) to understand the background of a topic and the people who were a part of it. From there, a researcher can make a list of the names and organizations associated with this movement and find where archival records are held.
Creating Powerful Searches
- Consider your search strategy and cast a wide net. Search engines are very literal. If you search for poem, the computer does not know that you may also be interested in results for poetry, poet, verse, sonnet, haiku, et cetera. Start by thinking carefully about your terms and make a list of alternate spellings, synonyms, and depreciated terms.
- We have been describing our holdings for a long time. We also try to use the same terms that historical actors used for themselves. Some legacy descriptions may use terms that are outdated or possibly offensive.
- Our finding aids system defaults to an OR search. This means that if you search for Hopkins athletics, the system will first return results with both terms and then return results with either term.
- If you want to only return results with both terms, put an AND between them.
- To search for an exact phrase put that term in quotation marks
- “Black Student Union”
- Searches are not case sensitive.
- Roland Park Company will result in the same results as roland park company.
- The ? operator is a single-character wildcard
- digiti?e to get either the British (digitise) or American spelling of digitize
- The * operator is a multi-character wildcard
- w?m*n will result in woman, women, womyn, wimmin, , etc.
- child* will result in child, children, childish, etc.
- If a user is finding the “wrong” version of results messing up their search, they can add a minus sign or a NOT before a query term to exclude it.
- Searching for opera -soap (or opera NOT soap) will result in all results for opera but will not return results for soap opera.
- Proximity matching is extremely powerful and useful! This is accomplished by adding the ~ and the number of words of proximity to search.
- Rachel Carson ~3 will return those two terms within three words of each other — for instance, Rachel Carson, Rachel (the environmentalist) Carson and Carson, Rachel. This is particularly useful for when we suspect that names will be listed in reverse order.
Most archival collections include what we call subject analysis — the process by which an archivist or librarian has determined what the records are about. In addition, archivists and librarians also associate records about people with different archival collections. You can browse “Subjects” and “Names” by clicking those headings at the top of the finding aid site.
From there, you can put terms in the “Filter results” prompt to narrow down the terms available to you. Once you find a term that you like, click on it to find related archival collections.
Remember that the process of assigning terms and people to collections is human and imperfect. Always cast a wide net — don’t ever assume that these results are exhaustive.
Once you’ve identified what you want to see, click the “Request” button in the top-right corner of the screen:
You’ll be asked to log in and/or register with our request system, Aeon. From there, follow the prompts to complete your request. When you have successfully submitted your request, you should hear from us in 1-2 days. Don’t hesitate to follow up with us at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions about the request process.
Note: If you request a collection that is larger than 10 boxes, you may have your request rejected because it exceeds our patron request limit. Therefore, it may be useful to note the size of the collection, found in the “Extent” note, before submitting a request:
Finding Digital Collections
Reference to digitized archival materials can be found in a few places:
- Sometimes, but not always, a link to a digital surrogate will appear at the relevant level in the finding aid:
- All archival digital content that is online can be searched in the “Special Collections” community in JScholarship, our institutional repository.
- We also maintain digitized content that is not online. This is generally communicated in the “Existence and Location of Copies” note in a corresponding finding aid, but you can also ask us about the possible existence of digital content by emailing email@example.com.
This guide was adapted from Smith College Special Collections' "Finding Archival Materials Guide," CC-BY