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History Day Research @ the MNHS Library: Step 3: Search @ MNHS

A step-by-step guide for student researchers

Search the Catalog

You can make the most of your time at the MN Historical Society Library by finding materials you want to use before you arrive.  

The first stop for finding materials is the Online Catalog. You can search it from any computer with internet access.  It works similarly to library catalogs at public libraries, but here are some hints for using it more efficiently:

  • Use the keyword search for most of your searches
  • The dropdown menu options labeled "MHS Search Options" will let you search specific portions of the collection like Maps, State Government Records, etc.
  • You can use OR and NOT in your search.  Example: (logging OR lumber) NOT Minnesota.
  • Think creatively about your search terms and how you might limit or expand them.
  • Remember, the catalog search only searches for words that are in the catalog records, not all the words in the full text of articles, books, etc.
  • The ? can help find matches that contain portions of words or different spellings. For example, agri? will retrieve agri, agribusiness, agriculture, agricultural, agriculturist, etc. In another example, ?ology will retrieve anthropology, archaeology, psychology, etc.  A search for wom?n will find both woman and women. 

Search Finding Aids

Some of the best primary source materials are manuscript or archival collections.  These include things like diaries, letters, government records, and the records of companies and organizations.  

All of these collections are listed in the online catalog, and about 10 to 15% have full online finding aids.  A finding aid is a more detailed inventory of a collection and you can search them online from the Collection Finding Aids webpage

Collections that do not have an online finding aid will have a print finding aid that you can look at in the Library. 

Search Collections Online

The Collections Online system contains information and images of 3-D objects, photographs, art, maps, and more from the MNHS Collections.  Here are some hints for your search:

  • Start simple with 1 or 2 search terms.
  • Add more words or use the filters on the left to be more specific.
  • Think creatively about search terms. For horse-drawn carriages, you might try carriage, coach, or buggy.
  • To search for an exact phrase in exact order, use quotation marks ("Civil War").
  • Abbreviations may give different results than full words (Ave vs. Avenue, St vs. Saint).
  • Write out numbers (Eight instead of 8). 
  • Don't worry about punctuation. The search ignores punctuation.
  • Searches are not case sensitive. Minnesota and minnesota are treated the same.



Searching at MNHS

There are three main places to search for research materials at MNHS:

Useful Terms

Primary Source - Materials from the time of the person or event being researched.  (Letters, diaries artifacts, photographs, and other types of first-hand accounts and records, as well as reminiscences and oral histories. Stories from newspapers of the time may also be primary sources.)

Secondary Source - Materials that were created at a later time.  They analyze and interpret primary sources; footnotes or bibliographies can lead to primary sources.

Still confused about Primary vs. Secondary Sources?  Check out our short video tutorial!

Search @ MNHS Links

History Day Prize!

Gale Family Library • Minnesota Historical Society • 345 W. Kellogg Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906 • 651-259-3300
Currently open by appointment only.