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JRLC 5490 History of Mass Media in the United States-SP21: How to search

Guide to assignment and resources for course that draws upon digitized content to complete the assiignments

Glossary of Terms

Archives lingo made easy...

digital library 


special collections 






linear foot / feet

primary source

secondary source 

Puzzled by other words? Visit the Society of American Archivists Glossary of Terms site 


Tips and Tricks-Keyword Searching

The Archivists' Quest 

Before archives integrated the full magic of the internet, patrons had to browse paper (gasp!) inventories of collections to find relevant materials. They had to read the information at the beginning of a collection finding aid to know which boxes to browse if they wanted to save time, or if they had lots of time on their hands, they could review the entire finding aid until they found something that seemed relevant. This was time-consuming and frustrating to patrons who were looking for something specific in a big collection.

Once archivists moved finding aids online, and better yet,  loaded these finding aids into searchable databases, people could enter keywords and get a quick list of results with the hits for the term highlighted.  There was broad rejoicing among patrons--searching in archives was now fast and simple. Archivists liked the fast simple searching too, but they also noticed that quick keyword browsing often stopped people from discovering related materials described by different terms.

There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth and handing-wringing among these archivists, but eventually, they came to their senses and realized that they could mount a campaign among patrons to reinvigorate the value of browsing and to hone keyword searching skills. No longer would patrons give up when their first keyword search failed to yield good results! Instead, they would brainstorm other ideas for terms to try.   

Make their dream a reality! 

Keyword Search Tips and Tricks

Brainstorm terms related to  your topic

  • Try different versions of the same word (example: Cuba, Cuban)
  • Try terms that are specific and general (example: Athens, Georgia, the South)
  • Explore the variety of descriptive terms that different groups used to describe the same people, events, places, and ideas (example: Civil War vs. War between the States, activists vs. agitators, protesters vs. rabble) 
  • Explore the evolution of meaning of terms over time.  Words that mean something to us today may have different meanings earlier in time or at specific moments in time.  ("busing" in the early 1970s is about implementation of desegregation orders in the early 1970s in the American South, whereas today, "busing" might be about environmental issues related to transportation)
  • Think like a file clerk. sometimes collections are organized by subjects, but often they are organized around dates, alphabetical listings of names, or by the group or individual that produced the records. If you don't find any files called "Cuban Missile Crisis" in a search of a politician's papers from the early 1960s, there is a good chance that there are relevant materials in  a folder called "1962." (The more you know; the MORE YOU KNOW!)

Never Admit Defeat!

  • If you try all of the tricks described above and still don't find what you are looking for, consider browsing the finding aids for materials donated by  people who are likely to be involved  in your topic.  Remember, every finding aid has a biography about the person or group that created or collected the materials.  
  • Never be afraid to ask an archivist for help; that's why we're here. We work for you!