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.
*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:
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: