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Using Finding Aids

Using archival and manuscript materials in Special Collections can seem overwhelming or confusing at first.
Knowing how to use a finding aid is a skill that comes in handy when you are embarking on archival research.
In this introduction, you’ll learn:

  • what a finding aid is,
  • how it can help you with research in Special Collections,
  • the most important components of a finding aid,
  • some tips to keep in mind when using archival and manuscript collections.

What is a Finding Aid

Finding aids, also known as finding guides, registers, or inventories, are tools created by archivists to help you navigate archival and manuscript collections. A finding aid describes and details the organization and contents of a collection.

Reading finding aids , whether online or on paper, can help you efficiently identify relevant collections to your research, and to discover boxes or folders of interest within those collections.

Finding aids:

  • Establish a biographical or historical context for the collection
  • Describe the scope and contents of the collection
  • Specify the arrangement of the collection
  • Provide a list of boxes and folders within the collection.

By browsing these important tools, you can determine which parts of which collections you should look at for your research.

All finding aids share certain components, no matter what institution you are visiting.

These components can include:

  • collection overview
  • historical or biographical note
  • the scope and content note
  • arrangement
  • subject and index terms
  • administrative information
  • box and folder list

Finding Aid Components: Collection Overview

After the title and date range of the collection provided at the beginning of the finding aid, you'll find a brief descriptive overview of the collection. This is a short summary of facts about the collection’s creator, physical extent, arrangement, and other details, and can include a brief descriptive abstract of the collection.

Scan the Collection Overview to get a concise view of vital information about the collection. Pay special attention to the specified date range. If you are looking for items from a particular century or era, you can tell whether the collection falls within this period by looking closely at the date range.

Also note the extent of the collection in the collection overview. Different institutions may use different units for measuring the extent of a collection (for example, linear feet, cubic feet, boxes, or items). This number will give you an idea of how large or small the collection is, and how many boxes it contains. This number is helpful when considering how much time it will take to complete your research.

Finding Aid Components: Historical or Biographical Note

Manuscript and archival collections are usually created by individuals or organizations. The historical or biographical note summarizes the background history of the individual, family, or organization who created the collection. You'll find notable eras, dates, and/or events in the life of the organization or individual described in this section. This essential information places the collection in the context of its creation, and is often necessary to understand the documents contained within the collection.

It can be an important starting point for understanding the life, activities, and relationships of a family or individual, or the significant dates, changes in structure and general administrative history of an organization.

Finding Aid Components: Scope and Content Note

The Scope and Content section of a finding aid contains a lot of useful information that can help you decide if the collection is relevant to your research.

Here, you'll find a detailed summary of the content of the collection. The Scope and Content Note describes particular subjects or topical areas found in the records, as well as events and geographic locations noted in the records. If the records relate to particular time periods, or pertain to notable people or organizations, these will be outlined in the Scope and Content Note. Particular strengths or highlights of the collection are described in this section, and if there are notable gaps in the collection, they are discussed here.

The Scope and Content note also lists the different types of primary sources held within the collection (for example, photographs, correspondence, or meeting minutes). 

If the collection is arranged in different series, a detailed description of each series appears here, which can include subject coverage, date span, and arrangement of materials within the series.

Finding Aid Components: Arrangement

The arrangement of the collection is sometimes detailed within a scope and content note, and sometimes it is a section by itself. This information will tell you how the collection is intellectually organized. 

Depending on the collection, the organization can be as simple as alphabetical or chronological order. 

Often, however, the arrangement of a collection is a hierarchical structure of related series and subseries. Usually, this structure of arrangement mirrors the original order that the collection was received in, so that the user can see the context and use of the records as the creator did.

Pay close attention to the arrangement of a collection. Documents related to your topic may appear in only selected series or subseries, so you may save yourself a lot of time by studying the arrangement of the collection.

Finding Aid Components: Subject / Index Terms

Use the subject and index terms to get a broad idea of the content of a collection. These terms are assigned to reflect major topical concentrations within the collection, and are like the subject headings you see in records in the library catalog.

These access points can include personal names, corporate names, geographic terms, and topical terms. 

In an online finding aid, these index terms can often link to a list of other collections which also relate to these subjects. Subject terms can be a great gateway to finding similar collections on a particular topic.

Finding Aid Components: Administrative Information

The Administrative Information section gives you details about any restrictions on access or on use that the collection might have.

Examples of restrictions on access or use might include closure until a certain future date, limitations on fragile materials for preservation reasons, or conditions attached to publication and copying the materials, usually expressed in a statement on copyright. 

Restrictions can be imposed by the institution or by the donor of the collection.

Information about the provenance (or ownership history) of the collection can be found in the Administrative Information section, as well as a list of related materials of note, and a preferred form of citation for the collection.

Finding Aid Components: Box and Folder List

The Box and Folder Listing physically inventories the intellectual content of the collection. 

The Box and Folder Listing records the titles of each series and subseries in the collection, and the titles of each folder found within each physical box of the collection. 

The series title describes the relationship of all the boxes and folders contained in the series or subseries. In this example, Advertising Committee and Advisory Committee are subseries under Series I: Committee Files. 

The folder title describes the nature of the documents contained within the folder. In this example, Advertisements, 1960-1970 describes generally what can be found in Folder 1. There can be many documents within each folder.

Though most archival and manuscript collections are processed at the folder level, occasionally you may find a collection processed at the item level, especially if the collection is very small.

Reading the Box and Folder listing will give you a good idea of what the collection contains and which boxes and folders might hold items related to your topic. As you are browsing the box and folder list, keep track of interesting folder titles by noting the folder number and box number. You'll need this information when you come to Special Collections to see the materials.

When you find a folder title that sounds significant for your research, or when you find a folder with your keyword, also look at the titles around it. There may be similar folders nearby!

Remember to think broadly about the topic you are researching as you scan the box and folder list. For example, if your topic is the development of local rapid transit systems, a folder entitled "trolley extension" might also contain relevant documents for your project.


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