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Kreitzberg Library for CGCS Students

Library Research Lesson: Finding Primary Source Materials

This lesson looks at what primary sources are, their value to the historian, and discusses different methods of locating them.

About Archives

Using Finding Aids

What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid is a document that describes the origin, content, size, and other information about an archival collection. Finding aids are the archives’ equivalent of a library catalog record.

How to Find a Finding Aid

They are usually available in a different place from the main library catalog, which is why there are special search engines like ArchiveGrid to help you find them.

*Tip: Because archival collections are usually organized by creator rather than subject, try searching for the names of individuals and organizations relevant to your research.

Sometimes these searches will lead you directly to documents that have been digitized and are available to read or download online. However, in many cases, they will point you toward an individual archives’ website, where you can read the finding aid to learn more about a physical collection that is stored on-site.

Searching example in ArchiveGrid

*Tip: In addition to using search engines and databases, try visiting the website of a university archives or local historical society in a region that is of interest, such as a notable person’s birthplace. Contacting these organizations may lead you to “hidden” collections not described online!

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:

Search examples of Archives and Special Collections at Norwich

Second example of archives and special collections at Vassar College Libraries

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).

Contacting Archives and Getting Copies