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Research Guides

Archival Research

Elements of Finding Aids

Finding Aids are detailed guides to the contents and arrangement of collections.  Finding aids, which may also be called collection guides, are written to give repositories intellectual and physical control over their holdings and to help researchers find what they are looking for within collections.  Finding aids can take many forms, whether digital or analog, and range in detail from a brief summary to an itemized list of contents, but most finding aids will fall somewhere in between. The level of detail and description depend on the resources of the repository and the collection itself.  Most comprehensive electronic finding aids will contain the following elements:

  • Descriptive Summary – The basic bibliographical details you would find in a library catalog record, including the repository, creator, title, date, abstract describing the subject matter of the material, quantity of materials, and call phrase (the "call number" assigned by the repository).

  • Biographical / Historical Note – Information on the creator of the collection, including significant historical details that provide context for the archival materials.

  • Scope and Content Note – A brief description of what’s contained in the collection, including the types of materials and the subject focus of the collection, with highlights sometimes mentioned.

  • Arrangement – A list of the series into which the collection is organized, or a brief description of the organization of the materials, i.e., “arranged by type of material, then chronologically.”

  • Access Points – The subject headings, including names, organizations, topics, places, document types, family names, occupations, and other terms, under which the collection is indexed.

  • Administrative Information – Provenance of the collection, access and use restrictions, copyright notices, preferred citation, related materials in the repository.

  • Container List – A list of boxes, folders, and volumes in the collection. You’ll need to know the box and folder numbers to request materials at the repository.

  • Finding aids may also include: Series descriptions, a list of items separated from the collection, and notes on related collections in the repository.

Tips for Using Finding Aids

  • Many manuscript and archival repositories have online catalogs or databases that allow searching across collection finding aids. Look for these and search them for sources on your topic.

  • Collections may be described in catalog records, website descriptions, NUCMC records, published collection guides, and/or Wikipedia entries in addition to or instead of traditional finding aids. 

  • Not all collections will have detailed finding aids, but when they do, always spend time reading them thoroughly before diving in to a collection.

  • Access may be uneven within a library, with some collections being fully processed and described in electronic finding aids complete with links to digitized images, audio, or video from the collection, while other collections next to them on the shelf may be described only in paper finding aids.  Collection descriptions are continually evolving as resources permit. 

  • A close look at a finding aid will tell you not only what is IN a collection, but what is NOT there, saving you time.

  • When viewing electronic finding aids, look for the "print view" or a link to "view as a single page" so you can do keyword searching within the document.

  • Archivists research the subjects of the collections they process and frequently write detailed historical and biographical notes that contextualize the materials. You can learn a great deal by reading a comprehensive finding aid.

  • A container list in a finding aid will tell you the type of material you’ll find in a box or folder, but it usually won’t give you the specific details of the items in that container. A typical folder title might be “Correspondence, 1911-1914.”  When this is the case, the only way to find out who is writing to whom and what is being said is to request the box and open the folder to read the letters yourself.

  • Not all collections have finding aids and not all finding aids are online. Visit a repository’s website to get an overview of the archival holdings and then contact the staff to find out if they might hold materials relevant to your topic.

  • As a way of dealing with backlogs of unprocessed collections, many archival repositories follow an arrangement and description methodology called MPLP, or "More Product, Less Process," especially for large contemporary collections.  This trend in processing means that archivists spend less time arranging and describing materials in order to provide access to more materials sooner.  For researchers, this means they may have to spend more time looking through boxes of materials because collections may only be described in broad strokes in finding aids that mention just the most obvious contents and contain little research and scholarship.

  • You will likely come across broken links to electronic finding aids in your research using databases, websites, WorldCat, or other search tools.  When this happens, use what you know in a Google search to find the collection guide another way.  A search using the repository name and part of the collection creator's name will usually help you find a working link.  If that fails, go directly to the repository's website and either browse their list of collections or search across their site for the collection you are seeking.