A Historian’s Guide to Researching and Archiving – How to Search (part 2)

Many moons ago, I introduced a new series, entitled “A Historian’s Guide to Researching and Archiving,” on my blog. This is part two of that series. In this post, I focus on the nuances of effective search techniques and strategies for library and archive websites. While these posts are intended for advanced research and target a graduate student audience, anyone can use these suggestions to improve their research and archiving skills.

To review, here’s a list of the “basic” research process:

  • Select a topic
  • Locate primary and secondary sources
  • Data Management
  • Research Funding
  • Writing
  • Submission/Publication

Effective search techniques can help you identify a topic and locate both primary and secondary sources.  These skills can be applied at institutional library sites and on archival databases. The University of Arizona library has generated a database of tutorials to help students improve their research skills. Three of their tutorials, “Selecting Keywords,” “How to Search (dead link),” and ” Searching the Library Catalog” may be useful (with modification) even if you attend a different institution, as these skills are universally applicable. Another UA Library page, “Effective Search Strategies,” may also be of interest. Your institution likely has similar pages.

Selecting Keywords:

  • The most important tip I can give you is keep a list of all keywords and search terms you use
    • I didn’t do this until very recently and have decided to keep dedicated lists for all projects going forward, starting with my dissertation
    • Turning on search memory in your browser will help, but keep a list in notes, Evernote, etc.
  • Keywords can help you find out what information has already been written about your topic (secondary sources) and in locating primary sources
  • Be specific, avoid general words/phrases
    • If you were researching tax records during the Porfiriato, don’t just search “tax records” or “Porfirio”
    • These searches would return too much information not relevant to your query
    • Instead, try something like “tax records” and “1876-1911” and “Mexico”
  • Keywords can include authors, titles,
  • Keep language in mind
    • If you’re researching a topic where the primary language isn’t English, then think about what words native speakers would use
    • For example: I study student activism in Chile. Student activism is a good keyword for English-language searches (and provides a wealth of secondary sources). However, it isn’t a good term for locating primary sources. Instead, I use “movimiento estudiantil” or other variations, which brings me to my next point

How to Search:

  • Try different variations of the words/phrases
    • This can include different word endings, combinations, quotations, etc.
  • Boolean search logic is your friend
  • Subject Headings
    • Instead of searching by keyword, author, title, or call number, you can select “subject”
    • This method uses Library of Congress keywords
    • Type the query, for example “student movements” and “Argentina”
    • Subject headings use dashes, so there is no result for “student movements” AND “Argentina”, but if you keep looking, 5 different subject headings appear:
      •  “Student movements — Argentina.”
      • “Student movements — Argentina — Córdoba — History — 20th century.”
      • “Student movements — Argentina — History.”
      • “Student movements — Argentina — History — 20th century.”
      • “Student movements — Argentina — History — Sources.”
      • Each of these subject headings contain resources (some overlap, some do not)
    • Many libraries still have physical subject heading collections (these are books normally located in the reference section)

Applying Search Techniques to Archival Websites:

For this example, I’m using Chile’s Museo de la Memoria y Derechos Humanos archive site because I know it contains digitized sources and allows keyword searching.

  • To begin, input your keywords. In this instance, “movimiento estudiantil”
  • This returns 1184 items, to narrow, add additional information into your query or click through. You can also press control F to search on the page – for example, if you want to know more about “mujeres” and “movimiento estudiantil” then you can just search on the page for “mujeres” – on page 1 alone, there are 58 hits.

Searching archive websites checklist:

  • Make sure the archive has a website. This seems obvious, but some do not.
  • Does the archive have digitized sources available? Again, may seem obvious, but some archives only put their finding aids online
  • Does the archive have digitized sources on the period in question? If no, then this it’s potentially a waste of your time if you have a narrow time period.
  • Does the archive have digitized sources on the topic in question? You may not know this ahead of time if the archive doesn’t have a finding guide, but normally a few searches will let you know if they have material related to your topic or not.

Under the Archiving section of my site, you’ll find a list of digital archives and primary sources that you can consult as a means of getting started.










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