Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

History 303 - Finding Primary Sources in Archives

Help with archival research for HIST303

What are we searching?

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

Archivists-provided description

Archives staff 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 They may use terms that were current to their time period, but might already be outdated and have not yet been updated.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? 

Full-Text Searching Tips

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of women at Cal Poly, historic texts have used many terms, including "girls," "coeds," and "skirts" as well as other outdated terms.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)

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 collections -- All Collections

From the Online Archive of California:

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

Advanced Searching

This is how you can see if a specific folder is digitized in a collection.

You can check to see if a specific folder or item has been digitized by searching the image identifier number (a unique number for each item digitized). To determine the part of the identifier you will search by, visit the inventory of the collection you’re interested in on OAC. When you find the folder you want, note down the 5 areas of the finding aid in the below screenshot, and combine them in order and separated by a dash. For the screenshot example, the string of numbers and letters you would arrive at would be: 002-1-d-01-06


Next, go to:, and change the Field to “Identifier”. Then insert the string from the last step into the Search terms box, adding a wildcard (asterisk) at the end, as seen in the below screenshot.


Click “Search” and the items that have been digitized from that folder should appear. Note that there are many folders from which no items have been digitized, so a search with no results should not be unexpected.