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ENGL:4720 Writing from the Archives: Home

Resources and information for Phillip Round's advanced creative writing course, ENGL:4720 Writing from the Archives. (Spring 2020)

Library of Congress Subject Headings - LCSH

What are they?

Library of Congress Subject Headings have been the standardized vocabulary for organizing information (and resources) since 1898. While there is value in searching the LCSH for headings related to your area of interest, there can also be challenges in using this resource. Cultural and gender biases are present in the LCSH listings, as well as a formality of language that may seem unnatural to most users. Being cognizant of those issues when searching will help you utilize this valuable and historic source.

How do I find the LCSH?

The Library of Congress Catalog offers a web-based search of subject headings. Using the Browse link on their catalog page allows you to narrow your search by subject. A detailed tutorial about using this search feature is included in this course guide as well. LCSH headings are also used by InfoHawk+ to determine subjects.

Then what?

Once you have subject headings related to your topic, use them in any archive, catalog (including InfoHawk+), or database search that you conduct. 

Search Strategies

How do I find a historical topic to research?

The best advice is to select something that you find interesting. This is a semester-long project - you want to spend your time looking into a historical time period or event that actually interests you. But where to start?

Ask yourself some questions:

  • Have you encountered a book or film that references a historical event you would like to know more about?
  • Is there a family story about past events/time periods that you want to investigate?
  • What was the most interesting thing you learned about in history class?
  • Does a certain historical event or location speak to aspects of your personal identity?

Browsing archive collections can be a useful activity to get an idea of historical events, time periods, and artifacts to research. The national archives linked in this guide all have an option to browse their collections or digital exhibits.

Browsing historical newspapers can also be an inspiring way to learn the events of the time. Links can be found at Historical Newspaper Collections

Finding Aids

Archival research is different than library research in a number of ways. Unlike libraries, archival resources are not removed or checked out from the archive - to view the materials, you must either be physically present in the archive or have digital access to the artifact. Luckily, many archival collections are putting items online in order to increase accessibility to their archives.

To organize the materials and save users time and frustration, archives create finding aids for their collections. Some collections are quite large and searching through many boxes of artifacts is not be feasible, but finding aids are here to help! They function like a table of contents for a collection.

Three items on a finding aid are particularly useful:

  • Scope and Content Note - This provides an overview of what is in the collection. Typically, this includes where the collection came from, what years it covers, and what materials are found within the collection (letters, photographs, recordings, etc.).
  • Biographical Administrative History or Background Information - This section will provide history on the creator of the collection, whether an individual, family, or organization. This can provide valuable historical context for the collection.
  • Contents Listing or Inventory - This includes details on what items are included in the collection and where they are physically located. When requesting items onsite, archivists need to know which box or folder of items you want to view. The level of detail in these records can vary greatly between collections and institutions.

To see what the information in a finding aid can look like, check out this finding aid from the Iowa Women's Archive. Each category of information gives specifics about the collection. 


Rita Soenksen's picture
Rita Soenksen
The University of Iowa Libraries
100 Main Library
Iowa City, IA 52242
(319) 467-4617