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University Archives: Researching Cal Poly

Researching Cal Poly in the University Archives and beyond

Finding digitized resources online

Archives staff have digitized many of the materials in University Archives and provide free public online access to these materials. They are found in two databases: Digital Commons and University Archives Online Collections.


Tips for searching online: 

  • 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 authors are using. Then try searching those terms as keywords.
  • Can't find what you are looking for? Try to broaden your search.
  • 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"....
  • 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.

Be aware that you may encounter materials that include offensive, derogatory, and out-of-date perspectives, images, and terms.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. 

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?