Discovery Tools

The search for primary sources often begins with electronic discovery tools. Discovery tools like catalogs and databases can help researchers identify relevant archival collections, as well as microfilm sets and published collections of primary sources. Some of these tools are intended to point researchers to the appropriate libraries or archives and do not contain the actual primary sources. In many cases, you will need to visit libraries or archives to access materials. However, you may be able to access digitized or born-digital primary sources online or through library subscriptions.

Electronic discovery tools include:

Sketch of wigwam

Plan of Eliza and Phoebe Moheage’s Wigwam by Ezra Stiles from Itineraries I, page 503, Ezra Stiles Papers. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Catalogs and databases that are specific to the collections of one institution

Orbis and Quicksearch are the electronic catalogs of Yale University Library. Orbis includes all of Yale’s library collections except those of the Lillian Goldman Law Library, which are in the MORRIS catalog. Quicksearch performs a combined search of Orbis and MORRIS, while also providing easier access to digital materials from selected databases.

To search the Yale University museums’ collections, visit their online catalogs: Yale Center for British Art, Yale University Art Gallery, and Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.

The Yale Finding Aids Database points to detailed descriptions of archival and manuscript collections found in Manuscripts and Archives, the Beinecke Library, and other special collections at Yale. To access the materials in Yale’s special collections, consult the Guide to Using Special Collections at the Yale University Library.

Babylonian clay tabletNeo-Babylonian commentary. Yale Babylonian Collection, NBC 6197.

Catalogs and databases that identify collections across many institutions

There are a number of ways to search for primary materials found at Yale and beyond. Good places to start are WorldCat, ArchiveGrid, or Archive Finder. These resources provide records on billions of books and millions of finding aids.

  • WorldCat is a catalog of library catalogs from around the world; it includes special collections and archives as well as books, journals, microfilm, and other library materials.
  • ArchiveGrid searches the finding aids of over 1,000 institutions in North America.
  • Archive Finder points to 200,000 collections of primary source material housed in thousands of repositories across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Ireland.
watercolor of colonial Antigua

Thomas Hearne, 1744–1817. A View on the Island of Antigua: The English Barracks and Saint John’s Church Seen From the Hospital. 1775. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection.

Databases that provide direct access to primary sources from multiple institutions

It is increasingly possible to access primary sources online. Many databases contain primary source materials digitized from multiple institutions’ collections and organized around a topic, format, time period, individual, or group.

Some examples:

Some databases, like the Internet Archive and the Digital Public Library of America, are free while others require a subscription. If you are unsure if Yale has access to a particular database, contact a librarian.

Consult the library’s subject guides to find primary source databases in your subject area.

photograph of a violin.

Violin, Italian, 17th century, by Nicolò Amati. Bequest of Mr. Andrew Petryn, The Yale Collection of Musical Instruments.

Digitized or born-digital collections from one institution

These resources are typically online exhibits or specially selected portions of a collection from a library, archives, or museum. It is important to recognize that these resources are sometimes only a sliver of the materials from a collection, and that curators and scholars have chosen specific materials to highlight and display.

Yale has digitized a wide variety of its own primary sources. Search Digital Collections or Yale Digital Content to find these materials.