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Kreitzberg Library for CGCS Students

Find and Use Archival Materials

What is a Finding Aid?

Once you've identified an archival collection that is relevant to your research topic, you will want to learn more about it. A finding aid is a document that describes the origin, content, size, and other information about an archival collection (usually a physical collection that is stored on-site at the institution). Finding aids are the archives’ equivalent of a library catalog record, and they are an indispensable tool for learning about the resources that are available.

Here's an example of what a finding aid looks like:

How to Read a Finding Aid

The format and structure of finding aids often varies from institution to institution, but the content is often the same. At the top, you will probably see the title of the collection and a range of dates indicating the age of the materials. Here are two examples of finding aids that look very different:

Finding Aid example

Finding aid example

Both of these finding aids contain much of the same valuable information. Here are a few terms you should understand in order to navigate finding aids of all shapes and sizes:

  • Scope and Content Note: The section of the finding aid that describes the general contents of the collection and the topics covered.
  • Extent: The size of the collection, often expressed in cubic feet or number of boxes or items. This is useful information, since collections can range in size from one or two documents to hundreds of boxes.
  • Access Restrictions: Sometimes archival collections contain sensitive information such as personnel files, medical records, social security numbers, or just private stuff the donor didn’t want the public to see. Be aware when you look at a finding aid that not all of the collection’s content may be available to researchers.
  • Series: Many archival collections are organized into groupings called series to help you navigate them more easily. Series organization can be based on time period, subject, type of document (such as letters or photographs), or any number of other categories.
  • Container or Content List: A listing of the contents of the collection, which is more detailed than the Scope and Content Note. It may tell you the general contents of each box, the label on each folder in the box, or even in some cases, the contents of each folder (not as common).