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Discover Archives

SearchTips for Discover Archives - finding archival records (primary sources) at U of T


This page contains tips for searching and browsing archival descriptions in Discover Archives.


In Discover Archives, it is possible to browse descriptions, persons and organizations, and archival institutions. The categories can be browsed under the Browse by heading located underneath the Help pages or by clicking on the Browse button next to the Search Box on the top left side of the page.

Note: Browsing archival descriptions will return top-level descriptions only (for example - this will not include item, file, or series-level descriptions).

Archival Descriptions

You can browse all descriptions in Discover Archives. To do this, simply click on the Archival Descriptions link. You can also limit your selection by Archival Institution, Creator, Name, Format and Level of Description using the subheadings area in the left browsing menu.

Archival Institutions

You can restrict results to a specific archives repository using Discover Archives. When you click on Archival Institution, icons of all institutions using the platform will appear. Simply click on the institution whose holdings you would like to browse.

People and Organizations

You can browse the names of people and organizations which are associated with a specific fonds or collection by selecting the People and Organizations link. You will be presented with an alphabetical listing of people and organizations.

  • You can limit the results by clicking on a specific entity type, (i.e. Person, Corporate body, Family)

  • You may also want to do a general search for the person, family or organizations

  • You can also sort the list by Most recentAlphabetically, or by Identifier


Using search box at the top of the screen

To conduct a basic search, type your search term in the Search box at the top of the screen. The search will return results from all descriptions and authority records across each Discover Archives repository.

Remember: this box does not work like Google! This box is searching across all archival description text as well as authority (name) records in Discover Archives. The system indicates by icon the type of record being retrieved - i.e. the paper icon is archival descriptions and the person icon will take you to authority (name) records.


  • As you type into the search box, suggestions will appear in the drop-down. Click on one to go to that record OR
  • to see a list of archival descriptions that relate to your search term, hit 'ENTER' on your keyboard (or click the magnifying glass next to the search box)


  • Results from the search will be shown in the centre area of the page.
  • Once search results are returned you can limit your results using the facets in the left menu.

Keyword searches: if you enter keywords and dates into this search box you may not get the search results you expect. Successful keyword searches ultimately depend on the quality and completeness of the archival descriptions stored in the Discover Archives database. If you are searching by a keyword phrase, you can put the phrase in quotes to limit results. Similarly, the spelling and format of names as a keyword (i.e. "Atwood, Margaret" vs. "Margaret Atwood") may change the results you retrieve. Note that exact spelling also matters when doing keyword searches - using the character * to perform a wildcard search can help when searching for terms that could end in multiple ways, such as semiotic vs. semiotic*.



Tips for Filtering Results in Basic Search

Original format: use this to filter archival descriptions for records of a given format, such as maps, web archives, or architectural plans. Note that these results will take you to the archival description for a record, or group of records, for the record format you select.

Original Format facet screenshot

The filter results for archival descriptions containing records with these types may not have links to digitized records for the specific format you select. If you want to return results with digitized records, make sure you select the "Show results with digitized objects" setting at the top of the search results list:

Show results with digital objects screen capture

Level of Description: use this to filter results by level of description (fonds, collection, series, subseries, file, or item). Remember that fonds, manuscript collection, collection archival descriptions will be about groups of records. If you select "Item" you are limiting your results to item-level archival descriptions. Most archives do not describe records at the item-level.  

Level of Description screenshot



To conduct an advanced search, click on the Advanced search option in the Search box.


The advanced search allows you to identify specific fields to search for your keywords or phrases and to filter and limit results.


Limit your search query to specific fields

  1. Limit your search query to a specific field in the archival descriptions, for example the title or the scope and content.


Build up your complex queries using Boolean search operators

  1. Build up complex queries using Boolean search operators - by using these operators, you can narrow your search, combine terms, or exclude terms.

  • Use AND to combine search terms to narrow your search: e.g. search Toronto AND "city hall” to return only descriptions that contain both search terms

  • Use OR to combine search terms to broaden your search: e.g. search Toronto OR "city hall” to return descriptions that contain either search term

  • Use AND NOT to exclude terms: e.g. search Toronto AND NOT “city hall” to return descriptions that include Toronto but do not contain the phrase “city hall”

Narrow your searches by applying filters

  1. Narrow your searches by applying filters to:

  2. Repository (archival institution)

    • Will limit the search to the holdings of a specific repository

    • Example - University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services.

  3. Top-level description (i.e. fonds, collection, manuscript collection)

    • Will limit the search to a specific fonds, collection or manuscript collection

    • Example - UTSC Photographic Services collection 

4. Level of description

  • Will limit the results to a specific level of description (fonds, collection, manuscript collection, sous fonds, series, subseries, file, item).

5. Digital object available

  • Use this filter to determine if the search results returned include digital objects (e.g. images, audio or video files, text documents, etc.), or by selecting “No”, include only results without digital objects.

6. Finding Aid

  • Use this filter to determine if the search results returned include descriptions that have a finding aid attached, by selecting “Yes”, or by selecting “No”, include results without finding aids.

7. Top-level descriptions vs. all descriptions

  • Top-level descriptions (Fonds, Collections and Manuscript Collection) provide overviews of the records, whereas the lower-levels of description will be more specific to that particular record grouping. 

8. Filter by date range

  • Search for any records whose active dates of creation either overlap, or fall exactly within, a selected range. 


Using Quick Search box

Once you have a navigated to a top-level description, you can easily search within the lower-levels of the description itself using the Quick Search box in the left sidebar.

Enter your search term and hit ENTER on your keyboard (or click the magnifying glass next to the search box).

  • Click on any of the results that appear in the list to go to that record OR
  • To see a detailed list of all the results, click Browse all descriptions.




Select records while searching and browsing 

You can select records while searching and browsing and add them to a list (the “clipboard”) for later review and further action. This can be useful when you want to consult records in-person.

  • On the archival description search and browse results page, a "paper clip" icon appears in the upper-right corner of each result stub. Click on this icon to add the result to the clipboard.

  • To view items saved to the clipboard, click on the "paper clip" icon in the top header bar, and go to the clipboard page.


Find and download PDF Finding Aids

Institutions have the ability to attach PDF finding aids of their archival descriptions. You can then download a copy of the finding aid - a download button will appear in the right sidebar if a PDF finding aid has been attached.


In some instances, there will be multiple finding aids combined into one PDF. Within the PDF, there will be bookmarks to facilitate navigation.




Hierarchical descriptions

Archival descriptions are hierarchical and information at the different levels go from the general to the specific. At the fonds, collection, or manuscript collection levels, the description will provide an overview of all the material in the fonds, collection or manuscript collection. The series description provides and overview of records grouped together because they were created as a result of a similar function or activity, record type, or subject. A file description provides information about material housed in a file or files that are related by use or by topic.

For further definitions of archival terms and concepts used within Discover Archivesconsult the Glossary.


Discover Archives uses a database platform called Access to Memory. You can find additional search instructions within the Access to Memory Search Documentation - though not all of the search features described on this page may be available in Discover Archives. 

If you can't find what you need on this page or in Discover Archives, contact one of the archives at U of T.