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Using Records about Slavery in the Southern Historical Collection: Searching in the SHC

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.

Searching in the SHC: Identifying Collections

There are two primary ways of searching within the SHC: 1) conducting a LCSH keyword search through the UNC Library's catalog; 2) conducting a term or name search on Wilson Library's search page. If you already know the name of a collection or the collection number you can enter that information directly into the search bar on the Wilson Special Collections Library search page

Option 1: Search by Library of Congress Subject Headings

In order to search for materials in the archives, you have to think like the archivist who described and tagged the collection with search terms. Archivists use Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) or keywords to apply a standardized description of what is in the collection. They include proper names of people, places, and businesses, as well as topics. Keep in mind that LCSH are not applied in the same way to each collection, so it's important to use a variety of tactics to search. To learn more about subject headings, check out this Librarianship Studies article "Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH)."

A few common LCSH applied to SHC collections about slavery are slave records and slave bills of sale. Remember that you can narrow your keyword search by geographic location. This is best to do for broad LCSH terms like "slavery." To narrow by state, you would enter: slavery > Georgia. Or another example would be: slave records > Georgia.

Navigate to the UNC Library's advanced search page. The "subject" field correlates to LCSH terms. Enter your LCSH here.

Your results will reveal all of the material tagged with the Fugitive slave LCSH keyword the entire UNC Library system (over 1,000 results). Narrow your search by the location facets on the left side of the page. For example, we want to narrow our scope to collections in the SHC, so we would click: "Southern Historical Collection." This provides a list of all collections tagged with the Fugitive slave LCSH keyword in the Southern Historical Collection (about 20 results). This list is much more manageable! 

Option 2: Search by Terms

You can also use your own search terms to search directly for archival materials. Remember that LCSH are not applied in the same way to each collection and sometimes an archivist will overlook a search term that you or someone else think is relevant. 

Start by creating a list of words that relates to your topic. Use any information that you know or have seen related to the topic to help craft your selection. If you're searching for an enslaved individual or family, make sure to identify alternate spellings or nicknames.

  • If you're searching about enslaved people who ran away you might search: runaway slave; resistance; fugitive; advertisement; rebellion; punishment; overseers; slaveholder
  • If you're searching for an enslaved individual named Abraham, you might search the alternate names: Abram; Abe

Navigate to the Wilson Special Collections Library search page and begin inputting your terms into the search bar.  

The term "runaway slave" produced 57 search results.

You can use this list to navigate to the finding aid for each collection, scan for important information or conduct a quick "ctrl-f" or "command-f" search for the same terms to determine their folder or box location. Note that other collections will likely suggest more search terms. For example, the finding aid description for the Harriet Jacobs collection uses the phrase "escaped slave." You can add this term to your list. 

You can also use relevant collections from your search results to mine for more Subject Headings. Each finding aid contains a list of LCSH. Clicking on these hyperlinks will take you to all the material tagged with that LCSH in the entire UNC Library system. You can make mental note of the LCSH keywords and enter into the UNC catalog to perform a clean search.