Skip to main content

A Guide to Primary Sources at the Archives Service Center: Searching Finding Aids

Designed to assist researchers who are using the archival collections at the Archives Service Center.

Finding Aids & Research Before Visiting The ASC

To maximize your time at the archives, it is recommended that you research your topic beforehand and identify all collections that have material relevant to your topic. The good news is you can perform this research from anywhere! In past classes, Dr. Muller has recommended students choose one collection use a primary sources for the seminar paper.

A finding aid is a guide to the contents of an archival collection. It will tell you the creator of the records, the dates the materials span, give background history on the person or organization, and provide scope, which tells you exactly what type of material is found in this collection. Most of the finding aids list the contents of collections into boxes and folders. At the ASC, a majority of our collections have a finding aid that is online and fully searchable.

How To Search Finding Aids

To begin your search choose a search term. Let's say you are interested in second-wave feminism in Pittsburgh:

Femini* finds all instances of  the words Feminism and Feminist listed somewhere in a finding aid.

You can also choose to do a Boolean Search, which utilizes two or more search terms

Narrowing Your Results

The results of search returned over 20 records. How do I know which collections are really relevant to my topic?

First, use "search terms in context" to see how your search term was used. Since the search function of finding aids only retrieves looks the string of words typed, it may not exactly relate. This is what is known as a false hit.

Mmmmmm? Maybe this relates to my topic- how can I tell? To learn more about the collection click on "full text" to see the finding aid. Remember one result  in the entire collection will probably not be enough. How can I refine my search to find collection more relevant to my topic?

Refining Search Terms

In order to narrow down your search results you may need to find additional search terms. One way to find additional search terms is to use the finding aid. In the section  called "Subject Terms" you will find a list words that are used to describe the collection. For example if you found a collection that was the right subject, but not exactly what you are looking for, you can use the subject terms listed to search. For example if Feminism was not returning the results you were looking for:

You could also try Equal Rights Amendment, Women's Rights, women's studies, or National Organization Women.