Finding Aids

As a follow up to the post on provenance, I will briefly discuss the meaning of the term “finding aid.” The Library of Congress defines finding aids as “a gateway to this wealth of Library treasures, helping you discover and navigate through the thousands of boxes and folders that house each collection.” The definition from Richard Pearce-Moses, in the Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology is:

Finding Aid. n. ~ 1. A tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records. – 2. A description of records that gives the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and that assists users to gain access to and understand the materials.

Notes: Finding aid1 includes a wide range of formats, including card indexes, calendars, guides, inventories, shelf and container lists, and registers. – Finding aid2 is a single document that places the materials in context by consolidating information about the collection, such as acquisition and processing; provenance, including administrative history or biographical note; scope of the collection, including size, subjects, media; organization and arrangement; and an inventory of the series and the folders.

When I first began in this profession in the early 1990s, most archives had the “black binders” full of finding aids. They were arranged in numerical order either by record group numbers or collection numbers, with an index to help you find the correct record group/collection. The collection descriptions were not available online, so you would often have to make educated guesses as to where a collection might be housed. Major collections were sometimes published in book form for wider distribution.

21.06 - Westminster Bi-Line (1963-ongoing) Page 1

An example of a legacy finding aid. This describes the origins of the current student newspaper and the locations of the issues that The Westminster Schools holds in its collection.

Now, many (but not all) collection descriptions are easily searchable online. As a school archivist, you will want to be selective as to what will be displayed to the wide public and what will be available to your school community. What you select for availability will also depend if you are in a public or a private school.

I have inherited the “black binders” here, which were extremely helpful to me when I was new to the job. Moving forward, we are switching to a content management system which will help automate the creation of the finding aids, allowing me to update the content in an more efficient fashion. However, I will still only display certain collections on our public site, such as the student newspapers or alumni magazines. The other collection descriptions will be available only to our school community.

There are certain bare minimum elements that should always be in a finding aid. These include:

    • Name of institution
    • Collection/Record Group number
    • Collection title
    • Description of the records (Scope and Content Note)
    • Any access restrictions
    • Date span of the records
    • Box and shelf location (detailed inventory of the records)

There are many more elements which you could add to the finding aid, such as a biographical/historical note about the department (or person) who created the records. Here are some further resources to help you design your first finding aids, or help you to re-design legacy ones:

Some books to read include:

After you become comfortable with finding aids, you will need to learn more about Encoded Archival Description (EAD). But, that’s another post as well.

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