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Special Collections and Archives

Tips and tools for researching primary sources in Special Collections and Archives and online

Search Cal Poly's digitized primary source collections

Explore over 60,000 items digitized from the Special Collections and Archives collections. 

The Online Archive is a growing database with materials added every day, featuring photographs, letters, videos, audio, architectural drawings, and more. 

Online Archive

Researching Cal Poly? There are more databases to search, learn more here.

How does the archives decide what is digitized?

What is digitized? Although there are thousands of items digitized in the Online Archive, this represents only a small fraction of the materials in the archives (probably less than 1% of our collections!). The archives staff makes selections based on researcher requests, course needs, and what we think are representative materials from collections. 

We welcome your input on items to digitize.

We are regularly digitizing materials and uploading to the Online Archive. Digitizing archives materials is a large component of our work in the archives, and takes a lot of resources in terms of archives staff time and managing software and storage of files. A lot of the digitizing work is done by archives student assistants.

Archives generally preserve for access (so you can view it online). We keep the original item in the archives for long-term access.

Person with headphones sitting and examining audio reel. Person wearing white gloves using scanner.








Image descriptions: On the left, student assistant Alex is digitizing audio reels from the KCPR Radio collection. On the right, student assistant Amy is digitizing a photo on the flatbed scanner. Archives student assistants spend hundreds of hours every year digitizing materials to make available for research.

Is this collection digitized?

Many of our collections have digitized content.

There are two ways to browse what is digitized from a specific collection:

Option 1: From the Online Archive

From the Online Archive home page, click on "Browse All Collections"

From the Online Archive of California:

On the collection page, click on "Online items available" 

Screenshot of Online Archive of California Collection Guide webpage. Red arrow with red text: "Click here to see what is digitized."

Challenges for searching for digitized sources

When you search for digitized primary sources, you may be searching several categories of information.

For text-based items, if the item is machine-readable through OCR or through a transcription created by the archives, you can search within the text. When you search the historic text, you will want to think about the terms that were used at the time. An example--when researching the experiences of women at Cal Poly, historic texts have used many terms, including "girls," "coeds," and "skirts" as well as other outdated terms. Sometimes they misspell words. 

Tips for searching historic text:

  • what were historic words that would have been used at the time?
  • Did a place have a former name (a street changing name, a country's former name)
  • Did the person change names? (for example, married, or emigrated)

Archives staff also write descriptions and other metadata to describe the items. For example, if the item is a photo, they may include a title supplied by the creator, but then add additional information like a description of the image depicted and an approximate date span. They may use terms that were current to their time period, but might already be outdated and have not yet been updated. 

  • what are some more recent terms used to study this topic? 

Tips for searching in the Online Archive

Tips for searching online archives databases: 

  • Use quotation marks to search a phrase. Searching "International Students" will search for that phrase, rather than any use of international AND student.
  • Use Ctrl+F (PC) or Command+F (Mac) to search keywords inside a pdf.
  • Create an advanced search that searches the years you are focusing on to get targeted results
  • When you find a helpful source, see what terms the creators are using. Then try searching those terms too.
  • Can't find what you are looking for? Try more general searches
  • Searching for individuals: start with a search by their last name. Then expand. For example, I could be referred to as "Sorvetti," "Ms. Sorvetti", "Laura Sorvetti" "Laura Ann Sorvetti", "L. Sorvetti," "L.A.Sorvetti" and the list goes on....
  • Use * as a wildcard. For example, searching Poly* will search both Polytechnic, Poly, (though it might also pull up polyhedron and the like!)
  • If you find a specific news story, browse the issues before and after that article to see if there were any follow-up or related articles.

You may encounter materials in the Online Archive that include offensive, derogatory, and out-of-date perspectives, images, and terms. 


The computer uses something called "Optical Character Recognition" (OCR) to read scanned text pages. If the original page is hard to read, the computer may not produce good OCR and the text will not be read by the computer correctly. See this example from a scan of the Cal Poly student newspaper: Side by side comparison: what an article looks like versus what the computer reads

Sometimes you may not find what you are searching for because the computer did not read the text correctly! Try many different keywords to search if you are not finding what you are looking for.