Research Guides Research Guide

See alsoHistoryImages, News & NewspapersU.S. Government Publications for History


For immediate help on this subject and others contact the reference desk. For complex questions related to contact a subject bibliographer below.

Anna Culbertson
Special Collections & University Archives Librarian
Office: Library Addition 4410A
Phone: (619) 594-6892
Robert Ray
Special Collections Division Head
Office: Library Addition 4410G
Phone: (619) 594-4303
Reference Desk
General Research Assistance
Location: 1st Floor Library Addition
Phone: (619) 594-6724
Special Collections and University Archives
Special Collections Research Assistance
Location: 4th Floor Library Addition
Phone: (619) 594-6791


For SDSU book holdings check the Library Catalog [ ]. The Catalog is the online tool used for finding books and multimedia in the SDSU Library. Books can be searched by keyword, author, title, or subject.

Book Information

A. United States

B. Ancient World

C. Latin America

D. Europe

E. Digital Book Collections

Books in Other Libraries

To find and order books from San Diego area libraries use Circuit [ ] (San Diego) or Interlibrary Loan [ ].

Digital Collections

A. World

B. United States

C. Regional

D. Latin America

E. Europe

F. Ancient & Medieval History



Citation Guides

Citation Help

Special Collections & University Archives

View Special Collections & University Archives content for online at


Common Terms in Special Collections

During your visit to Special Collections and University Archives, you may encounter some unfamiliar terms. Below are some definitions that should help you familiarize yourself with the research process.

Finding Aid: A finding aid is a detailed description of the contents of a collection of records. It is a tool created by archivists to help the researcher identify collections and individual items of interest. Finding aids establish biographical or historical context, describe the scope and contents of the collection, detail arrangement, and provide a list of boxes and/or folders that aid in the retrieval of materials. 

Finding Aid Database (the FAD): The Finding Aid Database details the contents of all processed collections found in Special Collections and University Archives. Users can browse by collection title or subject, or search by keyword.

Reading Room: Our main research area - a quiet study space where Special Collections materials are requested and used. Researchers must register and review our User Guidelines when requesting materials for the first time.

Registration: All patrons that wish to use materials in Special Collections must fill out a brief registration form and provide a photo ID.

Primary sources: Primary sources are materials that provide first-hand documentation or knowledge, usually of people, places, events or time periods. Primary sources enable the researcher to trace a research subject to its origin, potentially supporting new interpretations or revealing previously undocumented knowledge of that subject. Just a few examples of primary sources include diaries, oral histories, fossils, DNA, correspondence, speeches, interviews, court cases, or scientific studies. Secondary sources build upon or extrapolate information derived from primary sources, and the distinction between the two can be quite fluid depending on one's area of study. In most contexts, however, a primary source is understood to be a point of origin, or a piece of raw data, for a research subject.

Bookeye: The Bookeye is the overhead scanner in the Special Collections Reading Room. Using a simple touch screen, users can choose from a variety of image options, including Color/Grayscale/Black and White and JPEG/TIF/PNF/PDF (searchable). Images may be saved to a USB drive or emailed directly to the user from the machine. Printing costs $.10/page and is available in the Reading Room. Permission at the front desk is required for all scans.

Manuscript: A handwritten and/or unpublished document. Examples include letters, diaries, commonplace books or notebooks, and ledgers. A manuscript collection is a collection of personal or family papers, mostly made up of unpublished documents.

Archives: An 'archive' refers to a collection of materials created or recieved by a person, family, or organization in the course of their affairs, and preserved because of enduring artifactual or intellectual value. The term 'archives' can also refer to the building or department where such collections are held, also known as a repository.

Processed/Unprocessed Collections: Processed collections have been organized and described by an archivist. Unprocessed collections are awaiting organization and description, and are not typically available for consultation. All processed collections are described in the Finding Aid Database (FAD).

Posted: 2014-02-11

Keywords: special collections, archives, finding aids

Finding Primary Sources in the Library Catalog

Primary source documents are frequently collected in published books. To find these collections in the library catalog, follow these steps.

1. Brainstorm some keywords and phrases about your topic. If you were researching women's suffrage in America, for example, some good keywords and phrases might be "suffrage," "women," "feminis*," "nineteenth amendment," "vote*," or "activis*".

2. At the Advanced Search, pair your keyword with some of them common words found in subject headings for primary sources. These include:

* sources
* correspondence
* diaries
* speeches
* personal narratives
* documents
* interviews

3. If you want to impose any limits on your search, such as as location or language, choose them in the options box. Then click Submit.

4. Browse your results and click on titles which sound relevant or useful to your topic.

Posted: 2010-09-19

Keywords: primary sources

Questions to Ask of A Primary Source

• What type of document is it? Who created it and why?

• When was the document created? What physical details reveal this?

• What was/is the purpose of the document?

• What was the creator's situation or intention at the time of creation? What is the creator's relationship to the document? What evidence shows this?

• Are there inconsistencies or ambiguities in the document? Does it make an argument? If so, is it supported or warranted? What makes it reliable or unreliable?

• What does the document reveal about the period during which it was created?

• What research questions could this primary source answer?

• What else would you like to know about this document or its topic? How could you find the answers to those questions?

Posted: 2010-01-27

Keywords: special collections, archives

Tips for Successful Research Using Special Collections Materials

Posted: 2009-09-15

Keywords: special collections

Finding Archives and Manuscripts in Special Collections at SDSU

Archival research can seem scary or impossible at first, but once you get started it can be lots of fun. Use these tips to find archival collections related to your topic.

1. Use the Finding Aid Database.
The Finding Aid Database allows researchers to keyword search the finding aids of over 250 archival/manuscripts collections in Special Collections. [A finding aid is a detailed description and listing of an archival or manuscripts collection. It is a tool created by archivists to help the researcher identify collections of interest, and boxes or folders of interest within those collections. Finding aids establish biographical or historical context, describe the scope and contents of the collection, detail arrangement, and provide a list of boxes and/or folders.] Your keyword might be found in a biographical or historical note, a scope or content note, a note about the arrangement of the collection, or in the title of a box or folder in the collection.

2. Use the Special Collections Research Guides.
These research guides classify our book, archival/manuscript, and ephemera collections into their main topics. Explore the tabs above to see these subject guides.

If you are looking for collections related to San Diego history, follow this link.

3. Search the library catalog.
Most of our processed archival/manuscript collections have brief catalog records in the library catalog.

4. Ask a librarian.
Make an appointment with a librarian in Special Collection to discuss your project. We can match you with the collections that will be most productive for your research. Archival research can be daunting, but we can help you with a one-on-one research tutorial. Click on the Main tab for contact info.

Posted: 2009-08-07

Keywords: special collections

Finding Books in Special Collections at SDSU

Special Collections and University Archives houses rare, fine, unique, and valuable books, periodicals, manuscripts, and documents which require security and care in handling. Other valuable historical materials such as photographs, prints, postcards, memorabilia, scrapbooks, and oral histories are also held in Special Collections. Our materials are easy to find in the library catalog.

1. At the Advanced Search, type in your keyword(s).
2. Under Location, select Special Collections.
3. You can limit your search by Material Type, Language, and even Year Range.
4. Sort the Search Results by Relevance, Year, or Title. The Year option is particularly helpful for Special Collections materials.
5. Browse results.

Example: If you were looking for primary sources from or about the Civil War, type the keywords "civil war" and "United States" into the keyword search boxes (with quotes). Highlight "Special Collections" under Location. Click on Search. Results include archival collections, maps, and books. Sort your results by year, and go to the last page to view sources produced during or around the Civil War (1861-1865) held in Special Collections. Try adding keywords like "speech," "correspondence," "letters," or "narrative" to refine your search.

Posted: 2009-08-06

Keywords: special collections

Download Adobe Acrobat Reader  
Download Microsoft Word Viewer  
Find this guide and others at
Printed 2018-02-20
SDSU Library & Information Access