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Historical primary sources online: C. Research

Multipart guide to VT Libraries' many digital archives, whether based on types of sources or thematic collections.


General Information

Monday-Friday 8am-5pm & By Appointment

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Telephone: 540-231-6308
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Aaron Purcell, Director, Special Collections and University Archives
Kira Dietz, Assistant Director, Special Collections and University Archives [appointment calendar]
Ren Harman, Oral History Projects Archivist/Project Manager, VT Stories
John Jackson, Archives Assistant
Alan Munshower, Digital Collections Archivist
LM Rozema, Processing and Special Projects Archivist
Jade Snelling, Collections Archivist
Amelia Verkerk, University Archivist
Anthony Wright de Hernandez, Community Collections Archivist
Kat Zinn, Project Archivist


The first thing to know is that if you are unfamiliar or simply unpracticed with the tools for finding materials in Special Collections and University Archives but are curious to know if there may be materials here that could be of use or interest, don't let that stop you from coming in. We help folks all the time who may never have heard of a finding aid or a vertical file or, perhaps, aren't sure how the Library's online catalog works. We'd be happy to help you.

Finding Aids

If you've already read through the part of this LibGuide on Materials, you know that finding aids are documents written by archivists that describe manuscript collections. They are online and searchable, and searching finding aids is the way to identify manuscript materials that may be of interest. Let's take a look at a finding aid.

If you've clicked on the previous link, you should now be looking at a page the top of which reads, "A Guide to the Charles F. McKenna Collection, 1861–1998 (Bulk 1861–1913)." This is the finding aid for a small, 1-box collection, the McKenna collection. As you look/scroll down the page, you'll see the collection number, Ms2009-031 and some basic information about this repository. As you look/scroll further down, you'll see a series of elements that, basically, are repeated in all finding aids. (This means you'll be able to rely on seeing these or similar elements in any finding aids from any repository.) The most important of these elements are:

  • Physical Characteristics: This is where you get a statement of the size of the collection, usually expressed in numbers of boxes and total cubic ft. of materials. It is often useful to know the size of a collection before viewing it, just so you know what you're working with. A collection of a single document may be of limited value, for example, or a collection of five boxes may take some time to work through.
  • Abstract: A short sentence or two that describes the materials in the collection
  • Administrative Information: This will usually include any restrictions either on the use of the collection or access to it. There will also be a proper citation for the collection. There may be other information, as there is here, in the McKenna finding aid, regarding the acquisition and processing of the collection.
  • Biographical and/or Historical note: In the case of a collection that relates to an individual (as is the case with McKenna), a family, or a group of individuals, a biographical note presents the major details of that person's life or the lives of the people involved. The point here is not to go into great depth, but to offer context for the materials in the collection. In the case where a corporation or some other institution or entity is involved, the note will usually be labeled, historical note.
  • Scope and Content note: This is a description of the contents of the collection, more detailed than the abstract, also to provide additional context for the materials. 
  • Arrangement note: For many collections, especially larger ones, it is helpful to divide the materials into smaller segments of similar materials. These are called Series. In the case of the McKenna collection, it has been divided into two series, Personal Papers and Published Materials. The Arrangement note will describe the various Series, if there are any, or may simply state, for example, that all materials are presented in a particular order, perhaps, chronological or alphabetical by the correspondents' last name. A smaller collection may not have an Arrangement note. 
  • Related and/or Separated Material: Not all finding aids will include these notes, but if there are other specific materials that may be of use to a researcher or if material originally contained in the collection has been separated from it, then these notes will appear.
  • Index Terms: If subject heading have been applied to the collection, they will appear here. 
  • Contents List: This note will appear in all finding aids and gives a list, usually in terms of Box number and Folder number,  of the contents of a collection. In the case of the McKenna collection, there is only one box, which contains 11 folders. The Contents list describes, usually in minimal detail, the contents of each. 

For a longer, more complex finding aid for a larger collection, see, for example, the finding aid for the Christopher C. Kraft Papers, 1941–1998. Kraft was a student at Virginia Tech in the 1940s and went on to become director of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center. Though the collection contains 28 boxes, the format of the finding aid is the same as that of McKenna's. 

Now that you know what a finding aid is, and we have mentioned that they are online and searchable, where can they be found? 

There are a couple of ways to get to the point of searching Special Collections and University Archives' finding aids. 

  • Go to the Special Collections and University Archives homepage and find the link to the Virginia Heritage Project. It is at the bottom of the right-hand navigation list under Consortiums. (No, you are not wrong, there is no indication whatsoever that this link leads to the finding aids.) Clicking on the link will bring you to the search page with an empty search box (for your search terms) and a Repository box, where you can indicate that you only want to search finding aids from Special Collections and University Archives at Virginia Tech (appearing about nine up from the bottom of the drop-down list and displaying as Virginia Polytechnic and State University). In case you are curious, about 25 other Virginia institutions list their finding aids here, and they are searchable, as well.
  • You can go straight to the Virginia Heritage Project search page, in which case, the same directions as those listed immediately above will apply.

Remember, as with any other search process, you may start by searching for specific terms, but be prepared to expand your search to related terms, by broadening your search and by being creative in coming up with search terms. Also, importantly, remember that you are not searching the text of the documents that make up the collections themselves, you are only searching the finding aids, those documents that describe the collections!

Looking for Books: Using the Library catalog

The Library's online catalog is the best portal to the University Libraries's catalog when looking for books in Special Collections and University Archives. If you're used to using Discovery, that is fine, but the catalog lets you more easily restrict your search to Special Collections and will not present you with as many extraneous results as Discovery may. 

Use the same expanded strategies when employing search terms as you would in any library search process. Take advantage of the list of limiters (Author, Title, etc.) in the left-hand column and/or use the Advanced Search option for greater reliability in finding useful results. 

You may also find manuscript collections among your results when searching the catalog. Although these collections are listed in catalog, the process for searching finding aids outlined above with the Virginia Heritage Project search function will give you more useful results as, typically, you will be searching a larger amount of text per collection.

University Archives: As a kind of hybrid component of Special Collections and University Archives, University Archives consists of printed/published pieces that are available via the catalog, manuscript collections—noted by the prefix RG for Record Group—for which there are finding aids listed at the Virginia Heritage Project, along with maps and photographs that may be found within Map and Photograph collections. A list of the major RG groups is available on the Introductory page to University Archives on the Special Collections and University Archives website. 

Other materials

Vertical Files: The subjects included in each of the four sets of vertical files (Blacksburg, Montgomery County, Southwest Virginia, and Biographical) have been listed in "finding aids" for these collections to make them easily accessible. To retrieve these lists, go to Virginia Heritage Project, limit your search to "Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University" in the drop down menu, and enter vertical file as your search term. The first four results should be links to each of the four sets of vertical files. Open the link to see the lists of subjects. 

Photographs: As is the case with the vertical files, the Historical Photograph collection is, primarily, arranged into folders by topic. Again, as with the vertical files, there is a "finding aid" that lists these topics. To retrieve this list, go to Virginia Heritage Project, limit your search to "Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University" in the drop down menu, and enter Historical photograph subjects as your search term. The first returned result will be the link to the Historical Photograph Collection (List of Subjects). Open the link to see the lists of subjects. 

Keep in mind that there is also a "finding aid" for a list and short descriptions of Named/Individual Photograph Collections. Rather than listing photographs by subject, these collections are, like manuscript collections, named, primarily, for the creator or source of the photographs. There are nearly 40 of them. To see these short descriptions, go to Virginia Heritage Project, limit your search to "Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University" in the drop down menu, and enter Historical photograph named as your search term.

A simple search in Virginia Heritage Project with the search limited to "Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University" in the drop down menu and the search term, Historical Photograph will bring up both of these "finding aids," but not necessarily at the top of the list.

Note that the advantage of creating these "finding aids" for photographic collections and for the vertical files is that a search in Virginia Heritage on any terms or subjects that appear in these "finding aids" will return manuscript and photographic collections as appropriate.

Lastly, with regard to photographs, the vast majority of these photographs are available digitally via ImageBase, a database found linked to the Special Collections and University Archives homepage.

Maps: The best way to search for maps in Special Collections currently is to go to the Map Guide page of the previous Special Collections and University Archives website and use the embedded links to navigate down the page or, because this is a static HTML page, use the FIND function (Control-F or Command-F on a Mac) to look for specific terms.

Note: Some materials are held in our offsite storage facility and require a day or, perhaps, two to retrieve and bring to Special Collections and University Archives. If materials are kept offsite, this will be noted in the catalog record for the item. You may either request the materials yourself to be brought to Special Collections and University Archives via catalog or contact Special Collections and University Archives, and we will request them for you.