Finding Primary Sources
Print out a copy of this page for taking notes while you follow the instructions.
Using the Online Catalog
This activity will show you how to use the Online Catalog, an online searchable database that provides information about some of the materials available at the National Archives. More detailed information about the online catalog is available at the Online Catalog main page.
- Begin by brainstorming a list of terms related to your topic. (For example, if your topic is the building of the Panama Canal, you might include the following terms on your list: Panama Canal, Panama, Theodore Roosevelt, canal zone, etc.) Write your list here:
- Go to the Basic Search, and place your curser in the keyword box. Enter a topic term from the list you made above.
(Please note that you can search more than one topic at the same time by using Boolean operators such as: AND, OR, and NOT between the search terms. You may limit your search anywhere from 100 hits or up to 2000 hits. You may filter your search by selecting any of the filter options: If you are specifically interested in locating images of documents related to your topic, the results will indicate if a digital copy is available. If you select the box "Descriptions of Archival Materials linked to digital copies" box, then thumbnail images and their item level descriptions will result. If you choose not to select the "Descriptions of Archival materials linked to digital copies" box , results will appear with a link to any available digital copies. If you wish to search for materials by location, select that location in the location scroll box. If you wish to search for materials by type, select that type in type scroll box. You may also wish to search by adding dates in the date filter box. Because all the records have dates and many dates ranges are very broad, you should always use other filters with a date filter. For more information on these tools, click on the online catalog help link located on the catalog's main page.)
- Press the "Go" button. If your search term was found in the catalog's database, the search results will indicate the number of hits retrieved and then the results will be listed 10 per page. Please note that "hits retrieved" refers only entries in the database and does not include all the archival holdings of the National Archives.
If records are found, go to D below.
If no records are found, repeat steps B and C with your other term(s).
If you still find no records, remember that the catalog only includes information about a small portion of the materials available at the National Archives.
Go to Activity 1, Activity 2, Activity 4, or Activity 5.
- If you find reference to National Archives material that seems interesting, click on the title link. A more detailed description of the material will appear with information about the records' location and whom to contact about them. Please note that in some cases (a motion picture film, for example) the described material will be a specific item. In other cases, the described material may consist of a large series of records.
- If the material described sounds like something you can use, print the page.
- In order to locate and obtain copies of specific records that may be of interest to you, you must contact the National Archives facility that maintains the material(s) you found described in the catalog search. Using the address that appears on the "Contact" line of the page(s) you printed in step E above, contact the facility. Use our sample letter as a guide to compose your message.
You have successfully conducted a search using our online catalog. Good for you!
There are other ways to search online for information about records at the National Archives. You can try:
Activity 1: Using Record Groups
Activity 2: Using the Guide to Federal Records in the National Archives of the United States
Activity 4: Using the Guide to the Records of the United States Senate at the National Archives
Activity 5: Using the Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives
Good luck with your project!