Research Tips

Getting Started  

While our collections span a wide range of subjects, perspectives, geography, and time, keep in mind the general makeup of our archive.   

  • Most of our manuscript and archives collections originate from the [late-1700s] through the present. Our manuscripts include representative national and international perspectives, but the collections emphasize Virginia history in particular. Most family papers and other genealogical resources concern Virginia families, especially those of Williamsburg and nearby counties.   
  • The majority of our rare books were made [post-1600] through the present.   
  • If you’re interested in exploring our collections but don’t know where to start, try browsing our collections and featured projects in our Digital Collections repository, or search through subjects on the Collection Guides database. Collections are tagged with subject headings that describe their content. While not completely comprehensive, subject headings can give you an idea of some of our collecting areas. 

Tailoring Your Search  

When searching the Collection Guides database for manuscripts and archives or the library’s catalog for rare books, use search filters to narrow your results. Filters are located on the right side of the search results page in the Collection Guides database, and on the left side of the search results page in the library catalog.  

  • For manuscripts, archives, and rare books, you can filter your search results by associated subjects, as well as date or date range.   
  • For manuscript and archives, you can also filter search results according to the names associated with a collection, including the names of the collection’s creator, subject, or donor.  
  • Use double quotations mark to search for an exact phrase or name, like “Civil Rights Movement” or “Martha Barksdale”.   
  • Consider your search terms and other relevant keywords, synonyms, or abbreviations you can try. 

Interpreting Your Search Results – Manuscripts and University Archives  

Most search results on the Manuscripts and Archives Collection Guides database will likely fall into one of these categories:  

  • Collection 
    • An entire compilation of materials. 
    • Often divided into boxes and folders—its physical arrangement—and series based on its format or subject matter—its intellectual arrangement. 
    • On your search results page, clicking a collection title redirects you to the collection’s finding aid. 
    • A finding aid describes the contents of a collection (the finding aid’s default Collection Overview page) and breaks down how the collection is arranged (the Collection Organization and Collection Inventory pages).  
    • On the left side of a finding aid, you can search within a collection and can also navigate through a collection using a drop-down menu. 
    • Each collection has a unique identifier, usually beginning with MS, Mss., or SC for manuscripts, and UA for university archives.  
  • File 
    • Usually a unique, numbered box or folder within a larger collection.  
    • On your search results page, clicking a file lets you navigate to the finding aid of the larger collection that file comes from.  
  • Item 
    • A specific object (such as an individual letter, photograph, or three-dimensional artifact) within a box or folder.  
  • Digital Object 
    • A link to material accessible online on the W&M Digital Archive. 
    • Digital objects include both digitized manuscripts and university archives, as well as born-digital material. 
    • Aside from finding them through a keyword search, you can also find digital materials linked at the bottom of the finding aid of the collection they come from.  
  • Subject or Name 
    • These search results will direct you to all database entries tagged under a specific subject heading or name. 


Interpreting Your Search Results – Rare Books

  • Click the title of a rare book to see its full library catalog record.  
  • The top of the catalog record displays important identifying information, including the book’s title, author, date of creation, and, if applicable, the name of the rare book collection the title comes from.  
  • The catalog record also lists the rare book’s call number, or its unique identifier. Most call numbers for rare books follow the Library of Congress format. These call numbers usually start with one or two letters, followed by a string of numbers.   For example, the call number for The Proceeding of the convention of delegates (1776) is JK3925 1775 .A1a.  
  • Scroll down to the Details section of the catalog record to see more information about the book, including subject headings, which you can click to find more materials in the catalog tagged with the same subject.   
  • Scroll down further to the Actions section, where you can save a permanent link to the catalog record, email it to yourself for future reference, or export the book’s citation.