A finding aid, in the context of archival science, is a document containing detailed information about a specific collection of papers or records within an archive. Finding aids are used by researchers to determine whether information within a collection is relevant to their research. The finding aid for a collection is usually compiled by an archivist or librarian during archival processing.
Finding aids are a concept dating back to ancient Sumerian clay tablets. In more recent times, finding aids were usually written or, later, printed on paper. Finding aids today can be created in various electronic and print formats, including word processor document, spreadsheet, database, paper list, index card, etc. The standard machine-readable format for manuscript collection finding aids, widely used in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and elsewhere, is Encoded Archival Description.
The content of a finding aid may differ depending on the type of material it is describing. Usually, a finding aid includes a description of the scope of the collection, biographical and historical information related to the collection, and restrictions on use of or access to the materials. Finding aids may be detailed inventories that list contents. They may also include subject headings drawn from LCSH, AAT, or other controlled vocabulary.
The data elements essential to finding aids are defined by the International Council on Archives in the General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)). Various national implementations of ISAD(G) exist, such as Describing Archives: A Content Standard, used in the USA.
The Collection Overview is usually the first section of a finding aid. Scan the collection overview, pay special attention to the specified date range if you are looking for items from a particular century or era. Also note the extent of the collection to know how far the boxes "extend" on the shelf. The number indicates how large or small the collection is, and how many boxes it contains. Measured in linear feet.
- Collection’s creator
- Physical extent
- Date Range
The Biographical/Historical Note is 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. This note describes a collection from the perspective of the time period it was created.
- Information about the Creator - the person, family, or organization that created the collection
- History of the Collection - notable eras, dates, and/or events in the life of the organization or individual
- Background notes - summarizes the background history of the individual, family, or organization who created the collection.
The Scope and Content note briefly explains where the collection came from (Provenance), how it is arranged and the span of dates covered, and in general what kind of materials it contains—letters, reports, photographs, audio/video, etc. This section of a finding aid highlights major topics, events, people, and places documented in the records and identifies those specific documents or series that may be of particular interest to the researcher,. Will also note where gaps or deficiencies may exist in the record.
- Summary of the Collection
- Arrangement of the Collection
- Series description
Information on Use is a section that contains information about using the collection.
- Terms of access and use explain restrictions of a collection.
- A donor agreement can restrict all or part of a collection to researchers.
- Copyright and ownership information is handy when you want permission from the owner to publish anything found in a collection.
- History of ownership and information about historical background.Provenance and any details on acquisition and who processed the collection.
- Additional formats inform the researcher about additional formats such as, microfilm, digital images, etc.
- Accrual notes if the collection is accepting new materials that add to the collection.
Additional Information contains details of related materials, language, how to cite the collection when using it in a research paper, any sponsors from grants, and a date the processing was completed.
Search Terms are generally a list of subject headings, a list of personal, corporate, and family names, subject and geographical headings, and genre terms that relate to the contents of the collection. Use these headings to search for additional materials related to your research.
- Use subject headings to search for additional materials. It’s a good way to improve your search and retrieve more relevant results.
- Society of American Archivists - Library of Congress Subject Headings - A controlled vocabulary typically used to provide topical access points for catalog records.
- Index terms are frequently taken from a Library of Congress Thesauri and Controlled Vocabulary to ensure that the same term is used consistently for the same concept.
- The Sophia Smith Collection reference staff at Smith College in Northampton, MA has prepared a Sophia Smith Collection Subject Guide for an overview of the major subject areas represented in their collections.
Content List is the arrangement of the contents of a collection into an organized sequence of boxes, folders and items. Arrangement is the manner in which the collection has been ordered. In a finding aid, the top level is the record group and within the record group are series descriptions containing the title, dates of coverage, and a brief description of the contents of each series. Series descriptions may also include the range of containers, a statement of the type of arrangement, and a note on any restrictions for each series.
- Finding aids in a historical society/private archive: Barron Country Probate Court Files at the Wisconsin Historical Society
- Finding aids in a public/government library: Edward and Clara Steuermann collection, 1922-1981 (Library of Congress)
- Finding aids at a university: William Langner Papers at the Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University
- "UTARMS Glossary". University of Toronto Archives and Records Management. Retrieved 2007-04-25.
- "Discover Finding Aids!". Library and Archives Canada Blog. Library and Archives Canada. Retrieved 2014-08-14.
- "Development of the Encoded Archival Description DTD". United States Library of Congress. Retrieved 2007-04-25.
- "A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology". Society of American Archivists. Retrieved 2012-09-18.
- International Council on Archives
- General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G))