Discovery Tools

Album leaf with drawing and unidentified music quotation, by Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

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. When using these tools, it is important to keep in mind:

  • Some tools are intended to point researchers to 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. 

  • In other cases, you may be able to access digitized or born-digital primary sources online or through library subscriptions. 


Black Madonna (2015) by Hung Liu

Hung Liu. Black Madonna. 2015. Prints and Drawings Collection, Cushing/Whitney Medical Library, Yale University Library.

Yale University Catalogs and Databases

These catalogs and databases are specific to collections found within Yale libraries, museums and archives. These resources point to detailed descriptions of primary sources found in special collections at Yale, including Manuscripts and Archives, the Yale Center for British Art and the Beinecke Library, among many others. 

  • Quicksearch performs a combined search of Orbis and MORRIS.


    Yale Law Librarians, “Quicksearch Introduction,” Vimeo video, March 17, 2015

  • Orbis is an electronic catalog includes all of Yale’s library collections except those of the Lillian Goldman Law Library.

  • MORRIS contains the Lillian Goldman Law Library collections.

  • Archives at Yale is a searchable database of collections found in Yale’s libraries, museums, and archives. 

  • Yale University Library subject guides can help find primary source databases in your subject area.

How to find subject-specific research guides:

Yale Library, “Find Subject-Specific Research Guides,” YouTube video, May 12, 2020,

To access the materials in Yale’s special collections, consult the Guide to Using Special Collections at the Yale University Library.

Digital Collections at Yale

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.

  • YUL Digital Collections provides access to selections of digitized collection materials from across Yale’s repositories.
  • A new version of Digital Collections launched in January 2021 with materials from the Beinecke Library. Other collections are being added over time.
  • Several repositories make their audiovisual materials digitally available in the Aviary access system, including:


    • The Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies contains over 4,400 searchable video recordings of survivors, witnesses, liberators and bystanders of the Holocaust.
    • Manuscripts and Archives holds recordings from both manuscript and university archives collections, such as interviews, class recordings, and digitized radio shows.
    • The Music Library holds rare and unique sound recordings in the Historical Sound Recordings Collection, as well as oral histories from the Oral History of American Music.

Yale Museum Catalogs

To search the Yale University museums’ collections, visit their online catalogs:

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

Resources Beyond Yale 

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.
  • Aviary contains audiovisual collections, many publicly available, from institutions around the world.

Fanny Eaton (1861) by Joanna Boyce Wells

Joanna Boyce Wells, 1831-1861. Fanny Eaton. 1861. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.

Topical and Subject-specific Databases 

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:

How to find databases by subject-area:

Yale Library, “Find Database by Subject,” YouTube video, July 30, 2020, 


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