The Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (SOVA) provides integrated access to descriptions and detailed inventories of thousands of primary resource collections maintained by archival units across the Smithsonian. SOVA searches the Smithsonian's finding aids, also sometimes called collection guides, that provide you with varying levels of descriptive detail about the collection such as creator, biographical or historical note, content (including digitized content), subjects, names, forms of materials, how the collection is arranged, the context in which the collection was created, related collections in individual repositories and across the Smithsonian, provenance, where the collection is housed, and how to access the collection.

Search Tips

  • Search terms should include KEY words or short phrases.
  • Use quotation marks to ensure words are in exact order.
  • Use Boolean operators, such as “AND” (search must include all values) or “OR” (search can include one of the values) to narrow or increase the results.
  • Personal names are often cataloged in Last name, First name order. Try to search in this order first.

How Do I Search?

Explore Archival Collections Demo Screenshot

At the SOVA homepage, enter your search term(s) into the search box (punctuation, case, and word order are ignored) and click on Search Button Screenshot or press the Enter key.

Narrow Your Results

Filter Navigation Screenshot

A list of related collections will appear. The menu on the left side of the screen allows you to fine tune your search. Select the appropriate facet(s) you want to limit your search by:

  • Only records with digital assets
  • Online Media
  • Type
  • Topic
  • Name
  • Culture
  • Place
  • Archival Repository
Digital Content Only icon in SOVA search results

You can tell if a collection has digitized content if it has a thumbnail image and the "Digital Content Available" message and icon.

Search Results

In the center of the screen, you can see how many search results there are and navigate through pages quickly. Using the dropdown menu on the right side of the screen, you can also sort your results by either Relevancy or Title.

Grouping Tabs Screenshot

There are also tabs that display your results grouped in three ways:

  • Collections: Includes results grouped by collection.
  • All: Includes all results, from any part of a finding aid, all the way down to the item level.
  • Digital: Includes results filtered for digital content, such as sound recordings, slideshows, or other online media. Also provides a grid view and additional content filters for common media types.

The number of hits your query received is recorded in parentheses.

Record View

SOVA records include various levels of detail to help users navigate to specific parts of the collection. Each record includes an introductory Overview. Most collections will also have a Contents view, for browsing or searching.

To explore this collection, use either the links in the sidebar or the container inventory in the Contents. Digitized material is indicated with icons such as . You can explore within a specific collection using the Search Within Collection search box at the top of each record.

You can also download a PDF Finding Aid, which includes all contents and description.

Record View Screenshot
  • OVERVIEW: provides introductory information and context for a collection. Also describes Usage and Access conditions.
  • CONTENTS: provides details about the collection materials, including item level information and access to digital material, where available.
  • DOWNLOAD FINDING AID: allows you to view and download the entire finding aid as a PDF file

Record Overview

A record overview provides information about the collection as a whole. The overview will often include administrative, biographical, and summary information.

Record overviews also include a section of Keywords. You can click on Keyword entries to find related content from other collections and Smithsonian archival repositories.

For each Keyword, you can also click to search our Smithsonian-wide Collections Search, which includes museum objects and other material. Links are also provided to external sites like OCLC's ArchiveGrid, to help you find content at other institutions, beyond the Smithsonian

Record Contents

Content View side navigation Screenshot

The Content view includes a sidebar with a table of contents. Use the table of contents to navigate to various parts of the finding aid quickly.

Browse through a collection's contents by clicking on the series, file or item titles. The breadcrumb links at the center of the screen (outlined by the red box in the above image) indicate your location within the hierarchical structure of the finding aid. This navigational tool will update as you move deeper into the collection, and can be used to return to previous locations.

Screenshot showing digital content icons

Icons will indicate the individual folders or items that have been digitized. You can view these digitized materials by clicking the folder or item title.

You can also search for digital material using the Search Within Collection search box at the top of each record. Click the "Digital Only" checkbox to filter your view to only material with digital content.


  • Looking for collections with photographs of pianos specifically at the Archives Center, National Museum of American History:
    1. Use: "pianos" as your search term,
    2. Check the "Only Records with Digital Assets" box,
    3. Narrow by Type, select "photographs" in the left column,
    4. Narrow by Archival Repository, select "Archives Center, National Museum of American History".
  • Looking for images of Florida that are available for viewing online:
    1. Use: "Florida" as your search term,
    2. Select "Digital" to see records that have digital content.
  • Looking for finding aids about Duke Ellington:
    1. Search for Duke Ellington,
    2. Results in the "Collections" tab include finding aids where Duke AND Ellington appear anywhere within the collection description.
      You can narrow these results further:
      • Check the box "Only records with digital assets"
      • Quote your search terms
      • Results assume "AND". You can use OR to include Ruth OR Duke
      • Browse the All tab to view results where Duke AND Ruth appear together on the same item description.