Breaking Down a Finding Aid
Posted On: 05/25/2017 - 4:51pm, Posted By: Sarah Staples, Helen Steiner Rice Archivist
Most people are familiar with public libraries and their self-service procedures. When someone needs help finding a book at the public library they know they can use the computer or card catalog to help narrow down the search. Researching in an archive is not too terribly different than researching in a library. For example, patrons at the Cincinnati History Library and Archive (CHLA) use a card catalog or online database to help narrow down their searches. However when it comes down to reading the material in an archival collection a patron cannot go directly to the shelf and start reading like they can with a normal public library book. Archival collections are kept in secure non-public areas and they are usually made up of multiple boxes of unpublished pages, scrapbooks, and other handmade material. Finding the information you want through the maze of boxes can be challenging. Thankfully patrons have a tool to help them: a finding aid. But what is a finding aid? The simple definition of a finding aid, according to the Society of American Archivists, is “a tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records.”
The finding aids at CHLA have various sections that help a researcher understand what material is in the collection and how it is organized. The large sections found in CHLA finding aids will be detailed below.
The beginning of a finding aid tells the researcher all the basics about the collection: the formal name, the number of boxes, the date range, and an abstract. The abstract will give researchers a description of the creator of the collection and a snapshot of what is in the collection.
The Scope and Content section is arguably the most important part of a finding aid. In this section the researcher learns how the collection is organized. Typically collections are organized into series. For example, the St. Aloysius Orphanage Records has six series. Each series has a name and focuses on a specific type of material. The Scope and Content section will also list the formats (i.e. scrapbooks, correspondence, etc.) of material found in a collection.
The Historical/Biographical Information section gives a detailed history of the creator of the collection. The creator of a collection can be an organization, individual, family, or business.
The Archival Arrangement section presents the full organizational scheme of the collection. It lists all of the series and sub-series in order and it also includes the date range of each series. This section is a great tool for quick reference while searching in the collection.
Not every finding aid includes a Note to Researchers section, but for large and/or complex collection more explanation may be needed. For example, the St. Aloysius Orphanage Records has this section in order to facilitate the large number of people searching for children in the orphanage.
The Collection Listing is a list of all the material in the collection. This is section should be looked at after all the other sections have been read. The Collection Listing can be many pages long, and skimming through this list without reading the other sections of the finding aid can be overwhelming. For example, the St. Aloysius Orphanage Records has a Collection Listing that is 60 pages long. Keyword searches can be performed on digital finding aids, but a researcher can miss contextual information by not reading the descriptive sections of the finding aid.
Finally, there are many other small sections that give important information like which languages are found within collections, Library of Congress subject headings, and if there are any restrictions on the collection for researchers. To view the full St. Aloysius Orphanage Records finding aid, click here.