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ES 250 Native American Texts and Archives: Finding Aids

What is a Finding Aid?

What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid describes the arrangement and content of a manuscript collection. With so many different collections within archives and libraries not all are available online. 

Manuscript collection can vary in size from one folder or box of correspondence to large collections consisting of hundreds of boxes containing letters, unpublished writings, official documents, video, audio, and photographic materials, and personal collections of books and other published materials. Knowing what sorts of things are in a collection and where to find them is essential to successful research. 

Finding aids:

  • Establish a biographical or historical context for the collection
  • Describe the scope and contents of the collection
  • Specify the arrangement of the collection
  • Provide a list of boxes and folders within the collection

Fun Facts

  • When created and stored according to archival standards microfilm can last up to 500 years!
  • Cubic feet is the total volume of the box, and is typically used more frequently in archives because boxes can be of all shapes and sizes. The box can be tall and skinny or short and wide. It is calculated by measuring the width, height, and depth of the box, and then dividing that number by 1728 inches (or 12 x 12 x 12). Thus a large, flat box containing a scrapbook may measure 18″W x 14.75″L x 3″H. The cubic feet of the box is 18 x 14.75 x 3 = 796.5 / 1728 = .460. Depending on how precise you want to measure, it could be .46 or you can round it up to .5. This measurement will help you estimate the volume of the records you house in your archives.
  • Linear feet is the amount of front shelf space that the box will occupy. This is calculated by measuring the side of the box that you can see on the shelf, and dividing that by 12 inches. A records center box is measured as 1 linear foot, as one side is 12 inches. Smaller boxes, such as a full-size document (sometimes called “Hollinger”) box, will measure .42 linear feet. This box is 5 inches across the side, so 5 inches divided by 12 inches = .417 inches. (Likewise, a “half-size” document box measures 2.5 inches on the side.) This measurement will help you estimate the amount of shelving you will need in your archives.

What information can I get from a finding aid?

Finding Aid Components

Collection Overview 
After the title and date range of the collection provided at the beginning of the finding aid, you will find a brief description overview of the collection. This is a short summary of facts about the collection's creator, physical extent, arrangement, and other details, and it may also include a brief descriptive abstract of the collection. 

Historical or Biographical Note
Manuscript and archival collections are usually created by individuals or organizations. The historical or biographical note summarizes the background history of the individual, family, or organization who created the collection. You'll find notable eras, dates, and/or events in the life of the organization or individual described in this section.

Scope and Content Note
The Scope and Content section of a finding aid contains a lot of useful information that can help you decide if the collection is relevant to your research.
Here, you'll find a detailed summary of the content of the collection. The Scope and Content Note describes particular subjects or topical areas found in the records, as well as events and geographic locations noted in the records. If the records relate to particular time periods, or pertain to notable people or organizations, these will be outlined in the Scope and Content Note. The Scope and Content note also lists the different types of primary sources held within the collection (for example, photographs, correspondence, or meeting minutes). 

The arrangement of the collection is sometimes detailed within a scope and content note, and sometimes it is a section by itself. This information will tell you how the collection is intellectually organized. 
Depending on the collection, the organization can be as simple as alphabetical or chronological order. 

Subject / Index Terms
Use the subject and index terms to get a broad idea of the content of a collection. These terms are assigned to reflect major topical concentrations within the collection, and are like the subject headings you see in records in the library catalog.These access points can include personal names, corporate names, geographic terms, and topical terms.

Administrative Information
The Administrative Information section gives you details about any restrictions on access or on use that the collection might have. Restrictions can be imposed by the institution or by the donor of the collection.Information about the provenance (or ownership history) of the collection can be found in the Administrative Information section, as well as a list of related materials of note, and a preferred form of citation for the collection.

Box and Folder List
The Box and Folder Listing physically inventories the intellectual content of the collection. The Box and Folder Listing records the titles of each series and subseries in the collection, and the titles of each folder found within each physical box of the collection. Though most archival and manuscript collections are processed at the folder level, occasionally you may find a collection processed at the item level, especially if the collection is very small.

Online Finding Aids

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