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Using Records about Slavery in the Southern Historical Collection: Research Strategies

This tutorial is meant to orient and direct users to materials that document the history of slavery in the Southern Historical Collection in Wilson Special Collections Library.

Research Strategies

The Southern Historical Collection has nearly 6,000 distinct collections. Whether you are researching a particular topic or trying to find an ancestor who was enslaved, you'll likely need to combine a variety of search tactics. This section provides some useful strategies for searching in the SHC's archival collections for materials about slavery. It’s important to recognize that you will likely not discover a complete story in Wilson Library. You either already have or will likely need to move beyond our collections to piece together more facts about a person’s life. A dead end in our collection is not necessarily a failure! To conduct archival research on topics related to slavery or enslaved people, you have to be resilient. The finding aid rarely reveals everything hidden in the documents.

Note that there are other primary sources located in Wilson Library; the SHC is just one of five collections. The research strategies provided in this section explain specifically how to identify relevant materials in the SHC.

Research Step-by-Step

graphic representing 5 steps of research with iconsStep 1: write down what you know. Where are you starting from? In the case of a genealogical search, this might include sketching a family tree. In the case of a topical search, this might include culling information from secondary sources or contextual histories.

Step 2: identify collection(s) in the Southern Historical Collection. Using the information collected, determine collections in the SHC that might serve as a good starting point. You might identify these collections using one or several of the research strategies described in the Searching in the SHC page.

Step 3: identify useful documents and folders to search. Use the finding aid. Which folders have the most slavery content? Which parts of the collection will result in the most fruitful results for your particular research question? Use the strategies on the Searching in Boxes and Folders page.

Step 4: identify useful information within documents and other materials.  Close read, skim, or transcribe documents to pull out information related to your search. The Searching in Materials page provides some helpful information related to enslaved people.

Step 5: assessment. Once you have read through the folders and documents you've identified, what have you learned? What do you still want to know? Given the questions you still have, ask yourself what other documents may get you to that answer. This might require you to go back to step 3 to identify folders with additional content. 

Move outside Southern Historical Collection records. The collections in the SHC will only contain so much information for your particular search. The following LibGuides provide suggestions of resources to search in Wilson Library: 

Check out these four research proofs which provide examples of how to put these steps into real-life research scenarios. 
  1. Research Proof #1
  2. Research Proof #2
  3. Research Proof #3
  4. Research Proof #4