Archive Discovery: A How-To Guide

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

Digital Archives Versus Digital Exhibits

What is the distinction beween a digital archive and a digital exhibit, and why does it matter?

Digital exhibits:

  • Items are cherry-picked from one or multiple archives.
  • Items are put certain together in a certain order to tell a story or convey a message.
  • Items are accompanied by interpretive text that further reinforces the story the curator wants to tell.
  • Thus, the exhibit has a greater potential to be colored by the curator’s interpretation and the exhibit’s overall context, purpose, and goal.

This does not imply that all exhibits have “bad” goals or that all curators have a negative bias. But they must always make a choice about the story they wish to tell. Therefore an exhibit is inevitably a more mediated experience than an archival collection.

Archive collections:

  • Are more "raw," designed simply to make materials available to researchers in an unbiased way.
  • Lack the interpretive "middleman" standing between you and the sources.
  • You are given more freedom to order and interrelate the sources yourself.
  • You can draw your own interpretations from the sources without being influenced by someone else's intrepretation.

 A digital exhibit can be a discovery tool for finding an archive.

  • Look for the exhibit's credits or acknowledgements page.
  • Find the names of archives and institutions which contributed to the exhibit.
  • Dig deeper into those institution websites in search of an actual digital archive, or finding aids / collection descriptions if the collection is not digitized.
  • If the collection is not digitized and you are relying primarily on textual descriptions of the contents, you might refer to individual digital pieces in the exhibit as examples of why you believe the physical collection's contents will contribute to your proposed research project. 

In a nutshell -- The exhibit may be a useful tool, but going back to the original archive collections is always a better research tactic.

Anatomy of a Digital Archive

Example of a digital archive

Anatomy of a Digital Archive:

  1. Starts with instructions for use, not a story.
  2. Prominently placed search box.
  3. Bonus tip: Pages that mention "ContentDM" in the footer are usually digital archives, because this is one of the major software products used to house digital archives.

Anatomy of a Digital Exhibit

Example of a digital exhibit

Anatomy of a Digital Exhibit:

  1. Pages begin with headings like you would see in an essay.
  2. Contains long passages of text like an essay.
  3. Contains a few small historical images, but they are treated as less important than the text.
  4. Bottom of pages includes links such as "Continue to next page," like a tour that goes in order.

Exhibit or Archive? Tips for Deciding

This comparison chart, plus the two images below, should help you learn to distinguish between digital archives and digital exhibits.


Digital Archive Digital Exhibit
Title of the site or page MAY include the word “archive” (but may not) Title of the site or page MAY include the word “exhibit” (but may not)
Topic of the site might be narrow or might be quite broad Topic of the site will usually be fairly narrow
Entry screen will usually encourage you to Search or Browse the collection - a search box will often be in a prominent place Entry screen will often encourage you to “Start here” or “View the exhibit” and content will proceed in a certain order, such as chronological chapters
There is usually not much lengthy text, unless it is a simple description of an image (example: "Photograph of two men standing in the rain beside a car." - notice this lacks interpretation) There is usually lots of lengthy text, telling a story about a historical person or event
Many pages should resemble search results in the library catalog or databases: lots of result rows with a small picture and brief description for each - clicking a result should open a significantly larger version of an image or document, along with factual details about its creation (but no interpretation of its meaning or significance) Many pages will resemble an essay, with some images scattered throughout; the images are often not very large, and almost always have captions below them


Newton Gresham Library | (936) 294-1614 | (866) NGL-INFO | Ask a Question | Share a Suggestion

Sam Houston State University | Huntsville, Texas 77341 | (936) 294-1111 | (866) BEARKAT
© Copyright Sam Houston State University | All rights reserved. | A Member of The Texas State University System