Did you know that the concept of the finding aid dates back to the very origins of archives? The ancient Sumerians created finding aids on clay tablets so that they could locate specific bureaucratic documents. We have moved a long way from the clay tablet, but the principles of the finding aid remain the same.
An archive contains all of the documents created and used by a person, family, government institution, or corporate body in the course of that creator’s activities or functions. Generally called fonds or collections, the documents of an archive are arranged in a hierarchy, from the general to the specific. In other words, from the fonds level to the item level:
(Sous–fonds – if it exists)
(Sub-series – if it exists)
If you have never used an archive before, you may wish to consult the guide Using Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers for more information.
Finding aids are tools that provide information about the archival documents held in a fonds or a collection. While finding aids can take many forms, they are generally used in the same way. Researchers use finding aids to help determine whether a certain fonds or collection of archival materials contains the documents, photographs, etc. that they might need to consult for their research project. Finding aids are created for fonds or collections but can also be created for series and sub-series of very large fonds or collections.
One of the most common types of finding aid is the content list. It typically provides general file-level reference information and contains the following elements:
- Archival fonds orcollection code (i.e.,MG26-A or RG10)
- Volume or box numbers
- File number (and sometimes a file part number)
- File title
- Date of creation or date range of documents held within a file
It does not provide content listings of all the documents in each file.
For a percentage of our collection, there are no content lists available. For example, lists are not created for collections of less than 10 boxes of material. Many photographic and cartographic collections do not have content lists. Some older holdings of government documents also lack content lists.
Lastly, not everything is available online;for some fonds or collections, the content list exists in paper format only, and must be consulted in person. You may also order copies of material by following the instructions outlined in our post “How to Order Digitized Reproductions and Help Build the Digital Collection”.
Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!