Getting Started

September 3, 2021

By Nancy Kuhl

Research in American and African American Literature at Beinecke Library: Getting Started

Archival research is fascinating and fun – but it can be complicated and sometimes it’s difficult to know where to start. The following information is intended to introduce students and scholars of American and African American literature using Yale Library collections to basic tools and research strategies. In addition to what follows, you might also contact a curator for assistance – we love to brainstorm about research in out collections! 

For a more comprehensive searching guide – including links to help pages and special topic guides see: How to Search the Collections | Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library (

NOTE: Some resources may require a Yale NetID login for access.



Orbis, Yale’s Library catalog:
A database including materials in all Yale libraries in all formats (from books to manuscript to literary archives to film to photos and much more). If you follow the “more limits” buttons, you can focus your search by date, place of publication, library location, and other useful limits.

Archives at Yale:
This database keyword searches detailed descriptions of organized manuscript collections, individual and family archives, business records, etc. Name and title searches work especially well, but key word searching can also produce surprising results.  The main view of any finding aid is used for requesting materials for use in the Library’s reading room. It is sometimes easier to browse the contents of individual archival collections by using the “PDF View” in the upper right corner of every individual collection page. PDF views of finding aids include easy-to-parse narrative histories of collections, notes about highlights and collection strengths, and lists of specific collection contents. They are often VERY useful places to find both specific information about individual collections and good leads for interesting materials in other archives. (WATCH a video introduction to Archies at Yale)

Beinecke’s Digital Library and the Yale Library Digital Collections:
This database includes thousands of images from the Library’s collections, including pages and covers of books and magazines (sometimes including the full text of books or articles), photographs, manuscripts, personal documents, art prints, ephemeral publications like flyers or theater programs, and much more. Search by name, title, or keyword.


I’m looking for manuscripts, correspondence, notebooks, unpublished writings by a particular writer
START with Archives at Yale: if Yale holds a large collection of the writer’s papers, you may find a Collection Guide (also called a Finding Aid); you’ll also find any archive that include letters by your author (or their manuscripts, photos of them, files of newspaper clippings about them, etc.)

ALSO search Orbis using the advanced search feature and limiting to “Type: Archives or Manuscripts.” Your search might reveal individual manuscripts or small collections of documents, or it might link to Collection Guides in the Archives at Yale Database.

ALSO search Beinecke’s Digital Library but beware of certain limitations and tradeoffs: materials in the Library’s Digital Collections have been digitized for many different reasons and they do not always include all the pages of a manuscript or all the letters from one author to another. In the Digital Collections, you might find some relevant materials you can view directly on your laptop without visiting the Library, but you probably won’t find everything in the collections that is related to your project. 

WAIT – I’m not sure about the difference between a typescript and a manuscript…and I don’t know what “holograph” means…see our Works in Progress page for definitions and descriptions that may be useful: Work in Progress: Notes, Drafts, Revision, Publication.

I’m looking for primary sources related to a particular topic –  slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, LGBTQ individuals, modernism – but I am not getting very many results.
IT’S TRICKY because most of the Library’s search tools work best when used to look for names and titles – they don’t often describe the content of specific works in detail. Sometimes the best way to find materials about a broader topic is to begin with a name, even if you really want a wider view or you’re not sure the name you know will be a good research subject. You’ll find some general tips below and an excellent detailed guide to searching by subject here: Getting Started: Subject Searching in the Yale Collection of  American Literature and James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection.

I HAVE A NAME – try using the strategies above for finding manuscripts and keep your eyes open for other names, titles, and named events that might be good leads. Try searching for new leads looking for other possible search terms. Periodically stop to Google the new names – do you find anything interesting? Other leads? Keep widening or deepening your search in this way. Cross your fingers (archival research requires lots of trial and error). Still having trouble finding useful materials? Contact a curator for help brainstorming.

I DON’T HAVE ANY NAMES TO WORK WITH – start with some secondary resources such as encyclopedia articles or other overviews of your topic (you might have to experiment with different topics to find something that fits your idea). Look for names of leading (or otherwise interesting) figures and make a list of possible search terms. You might also ask your professor or a curator for some help coming up with search strategies.

I’m looking for photos of or by a writer / photographer
If any photo will do, start with the Digital Collections; if you want to see every photo of or by your subject in the Library, start with Archives at Yale.

I’m looking for annotated books and other books that belonged to a particular person
We have a special guide for this:  Writers’ Libraries


Will a Google search help?
IT CAN’T HURT! Try searching for something like “name-of-writer papers Beinecke Library” – you might find good leads and you can then use the tools above to zoom in on the most interesting ones. Googling for “name of writer literary archives” might help you find collections that may be relevant to your research that aren’t in the Beinecke collections. If you are specifically looking for materials in other libraries, try Archive Grid, a database designed to help with this kind of research (Yale Net ID required).   

What about searching the Beinecke Library website?
IT’S WORTH A TRY! The Library website includes detailed descriptions of curatorial areas, announcements about new acquisitions, notes about recent scholarship, and much more. Keyword searching the site might turn up useful leads: Search

I am not sure what I want to research – how can a browse the collections for interesting manuscripts, books, objects, collections, research topics?
Beinecke Library blogs and Instagram accounts offer excellent opportunities to virtually browse our collections – posts often include call numbers, links to related materials, and useful information about context.

@AmLitAtBeiencke  (American and African American Literature) 

@BeineckeLibrary  (all Beinecke collections, news, and more)

Beinecke Blogs:
Room 26 Cabinet of Curiosities (NOTE: this blog was specifically designed to point out compelling avenues for new research in Beinecke collections by highlighting interesting, understudied, and newly acquired materials in Library collections)   

Beinecke Top Tens: blog posts gathering (approximately) ten related items to give an at-a-glance look at some of the Library’s interesting, important, strange, compelling, beautiful holdings.

Poetry at Beinecke 

James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection of African American Arts and Letters

Yale Collection of American Literature

African American Studies at Beinecke

Other Beinecke Library Blogs


Image: “The Race Track, or Going to the Start” by Alfred Stieglitz, 1902