There are many ways of locating material in Special Collections, whether you are interested in a collection containing thousands of documents or in a single photograph. A complete set of tools designed to help you find the information you are seeking can be found under Catalogs, Databases and Finding Aids, but here are some things you should know before you use them.
Primary sources are arranged and described differently from published works. Books have discrete bibliographic records such as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, which can be accessed through Princeton University's Online Public Access Catalog (OPAC).
Material in Special Collections, on the other hand, is described with different levels of specificity using not just the OPAC but a variety of databases, printed and electronic finding aids, descriptive guides, and other tools. Depending on its volume, format, and significance, material is described at the collection, series (a grouping of related material within a collection), box, folder, or item level. Collection-level records such as the one describing the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers can be found in the OPAC and the Manuscripts, Archives, and Special Collections Database (MASC). Note how different this description is from the bibliographic record for The Great Gatsby. In one case a book is being described; in the other, the multifaceted work of a lifetime.
While it is frequently impractical to describe every item in a collection, it is sometimes important to do so. The Historical Photograph Collection Database, for example, contains individual descriptions of thousands of photographs relating to Princeton University, allowing researchers to pinpoint images of interest to them.
Material in Special Collections can also be described at many levels at once, thanks to a powerful tool known as a finding aid. Finding aids, many of which are now available online, are multi-page documents that function as road maps, guiding researchers to the part or parts of a collection most likely to answer their questions. Finding aids such as the guide to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers describe collections as a whole, then break them into series and, sometimes, subseries based on the form, including genre and format, or content of the material in the collection. In the Fitzgerald Papers, for example, correspondence is separated from the author's literary works, and clippings from scrapbooks. Finding aids conclude with a comprehensive list of the boxes and folders within each series or subseries, allowing researchers to focus their search. In some collections, the items within each folder are individually described.
Many finding aids also contain a short biography of a collection's creator or a corporate history if the creator is an organization. This is very helpful in contextualizing the material in a collection. It is important to bear in mind that apart from artificial collections, which draw their contents from many sources, collections are centered around an individual or organization - the creator - and are preserved as indivisible wholes based on their origin or, in archival parlance, provenance. Thus, while two collections may contain information on World War I, this information is not extracted and grouped together under this subject. To do so would be to fragment and, thus, distort the life of the individual or organization that collections such as the Fitzgerald Papers are designed to preserve.
Many finding aids also contain a list of significant subjects, forms (e.g., diaries), and personal and corporate names that appear in their pages. Such lists also accompany collection-level records in the OPAC and in MASC. While these lists are not exhaustive, they do identify important names, subjects, and forms that would be overlooked if a researcher simply relied on the name of a collection to determine its relevance. These lists employ a standardized vocabulary established by the Library of Congress, which means that many collections can be searched using a single term. Subject searches allow one to identify collections in which significant concentrations of material on a given topic can be found; they are not designed to identify every topic that is directly or indirectly addressed in a collection. To conduct a subject search, go to either the OPAC or MASC and select the appropriate search option.
Keyword searches are different from subject searches in that they are free form, which means that any word or combination of words can be used in a search, allowing researchers to identify every collection in which these words appear, regardless of importance. Thus, while keyword searches are more comprehensive than subject searches, they are also less precise. They cannot differentiate between a thick folder of correspondence and a folder containing a solitary letter; whereas a subject search might well disregard the latter on the grounds of insignificance.
Keyword searches are useful, however, when a researcher is looking for obscure references to a given topic, such as an individual who may have briefly entered the life of the creator of a collection. Keyword searches are also useful when a researcher is unsure of the standardized vocabulary used in subject searches. To conduct a keyword search, go to either the OPAC or MASC and select the appropriate search option. You can also conduct a keyword search of finding aids by clicking on 'SEARCH' link at the top right corner of RBSC website pages. Keyword searches are also an integral part of all online databases and are therefore a very important means of finding material in Special Collections.What happens if I cannot find what I am looking for?
Each year, as additional material in Special Collections
is arranged and described, more and more tools for locating primary
sources are created. Unfortunately, many collections are insufficiently
documented, especially in an online form, which is why you should never
assume that what you cannot find does not exist. Never hesitate to ask
the staff for assistance either before or during your visit to the Department
of Rare Books and Special Collections. There are many ways to contact
us (or just send email to firstname.lastname@example.org).