The Online Archive of California (OAC) is one of the largest digital archives in the world. The site hosts the descriptions, and sometimes the digitized primary source materials, from over 200 universities, libraries and archives in California. That’s massive!
I know the OAC through my work in the Hoover Archives. The descriptions of Hoover’s collections are on the OAC and of the roughly 6,000 collections we have, about 1,200 of them have finding aids.
Finding aids are descriptions of collections that vary in the amount of detail they provide. A box list is one form of fining aid which simply lists a general, box by box, description of the contents. A detailed finding aid will organize subject matter by type (eg. bibliographic file, correspondence, speeches and writings, etc.) and which vary based on the collection. Within sections there will be individual folders, the contents of which are also described in a line or two.
Since online finding aids are keyword searchable, researchers can run searches on any number of keywords and find useful material. Many of the people that contact the Hoover Archives reach the OAC through a Google search for someone’s name. When that person’s name appears in a collection description, (perhaps as the title of the collection, eg. Joseph Stilwell papers) Google factors it into their search results.
The OAC even has a number of digitized items that you can see from your computer. When browsing through the collections, the ones that have an eye icon have digital materials to view. The 1906 San Francisco Earthquake and Fire Digital Collection has photos of the damage to San Francisco and the surrounding areas from the earthquake and its aftermath.
Give it a try. Search for some keywords that interest you and see what turns up. I’ll go into greater detail on search techniques in a future post.
I think the OAC is a great introduction to how to search an archive. Other repositories around the world might organize their collections in different ways, but the underlying principles are the same. Give it a shot and let me know what you think.
Have a good weekend!