Archive Discovery: A How-To Guide

This guide is intended to teach you how to discover archives and evaluate online collections.

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To learn more about how to critically evaluate all kinds of research sources and information, check out this SHSU Library research guide:


Whenever you are considering any website for any research purpose, you need to ask:

  • Who created this website? Is the creator knowledgeable or qualified enough to provide this information?
    • Person -- Is the author well-known in his field, and what is his reputation? What are her credentials (education, experience, etc.) and affiliations (universities, professional organizations, etc.)?
    • Organization -- Is this organization governmental, a university or museum, or a corporation? Are they primarily geared towards earning a profit or serving the public? Do they have a vested interest in convincing other people to adopt a certain opinion?


For example, compare the following (fictional) digital archives: 

Title: The Battle of Gettysburg Digital Archive

Creator: U.S. Library of Congress

Title: Virtual History of the Battle of Gettysburg

Creator: John Doe, professional accountant and private Civil War enthusiast/hobbyist


When comparing these collections solely on the basis of creator, you should recognize that the Library of Congress is a more authoritative source than John Doe.

This does NOT automatically mean the other collection must be "bad" -- John Doe might be a millionaire who has acquired the nation's most impressive collection of Civil War memorabilia, and his website might be a treasure trove.

However, when you see that a site was created by an individual or group whose credibility is not instantly apparent, you should recognize the need to do a little further digging. Take a little more time to evaluate it critically and think about whether it is a trustworthy source. You might set it aside, see what other collections you can find, and then compare it to those other collections to see if it appears equal or worse alongside them.


Finally, don't overlook the question: How relevant is this archive to my project? It may be a high-quality collection from a highly reputable source, but if it doesn't have the content you need, then it is not the right archive (this time).

Be sure you take time to perform a variety of searches in the collection, browse through the items, and even dive in and read excerpts from longer items like letters and diaries. This will help you to establish whether there is a significant body of content which can inform your work.


Whenever you are considering any website for any research purpose, you need to ask:

  • What purpose was it created for? Is the content provided without bias or ulterior motive?


Websites in general are created for many different purposes: to inform, to entertain, to sell, to persuade, and so forth.

A digital archive should have two primary purposes: to preserve historical materials, and to make them accessible. A credible digital archive should not be seeking to sell you something or to argue a particular opinion or belief.


Persuasion / Bias

For example, consider the following (fictional) digital archives:

Title: The Virtual Holocaust Museum

Creator: The Holocaust Museum of Houston

Content: Images and artifacts from the Holocaust in World War II Europe

Title: Did the Holocaust Happen?

Creator: Holocaust Research Inc.

Content: Images and documents arranged as evidence throughout an essay which argues that the Holocaust did not really occur as a premeditated act.


If you were evaluating these two sites as possible sources for a research paper, what you need to learn to recognize is the presence of bias, that is, an attempt to convince you of a certain opinion.

Persuasive arguments may have their place, but not in credible digital archives, which should be seeking to provide historical artefacts without commentary: letting the past "speak for itself," if you will.

The following can be used as a general guideline when evaluating sites (these are not hard and fast rules):

  • .gov sites (government) -- usually considered reliable and/or official.
  • .edu sites (education) -- look closer to see WHO a specific page belongs to; .edu pages may belong to university libraries, faculty research projects, student organizations, or even an individual student's personal page. Some of these would be credible, but not necessarily all.
  • .org (organizations) -- look closer at the organization and WHAT their goal is. Most organizations, by their nature, do have an agenda. However, some are still excellent sources of information; for example, the American Cancer Society, whose agenda is to educate and advocate in support of cancer patients and cures.



Occasionally, a legitimate site might require the use of advertising to fund the existence of the site, especially if a collection is not affiliated with a major university or government agency.

However, for the most part, you should be cautious about digital collections that contain advertising. You should especially be careful if the collection seems to have been provided in order to convince you to purchase a (separate) product or service.

Exception: This does not necessarily apply to digital archives who require a subscription fee in order to access the collection.

Think of it like this: If you subscribe to Netflix, you are paying for the privilege of watching the movies that company carries; the thing they are selling is the same thing which brought you to their website. However, another random company might provide a movie for free on their website, as a gimmick to entice you to their site so that they can sell you an entirely unrelated product or service. THAT "misdirect" sort of advertising/selling is the type about which you should be cautious when viewing digital historical collections.


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