Discover Finding Aids!

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:


(Sousfonds – 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!

9 thoughts on “Discover Finding Aids!

  1. Thank you so much! I think this blog is one of the most useful things that the library has done in years. I hope you keep it going. Great job people!

  2. I am trying to find information on my Grandfather John England Gable.He is a WW1 vet . He was also a stonemassion and i have been told that he did some of the stone work on the parlament building in Ottawa especially the bell tower. I have also been told that both he and my uncle Donald Gable also a stonemaisson worked on the War Memorial in Ottawa. I have been unable to find any information. My Grandfather died in july 1951 and I was told there was an article in the Ottawa Citisen at that time. I would like to know how to find out about this informatin if possible My uncle Donald Gable is a WWII vet and I would appreciate where to get information on him also.

  3. I love this post. More importantly, I think it’s a really useful one. As an archivist (and, if I’m honest, a bit of a finding aids geek), terms like ‘finding aid’ seem very intuitive to me, but I know from experience that people coming to archives for the first time can find our jargon a bit bewildering. Keep up the good work!

  4. Pingback: Discover Finding Aids – Part Two « Library and Archives Canada Blog

  5. Pingback: Discover the Access Codes for Archival Records at Library and Archives Canada – Part II « Library and Archives Canada Blog

  6. Pingback: New Finding Aids Online: Department of Militia and Defence (RG9) circa 1914–1919 « Library and Archives Canada Blog

  7. Pingback: New Finding Aid Online: Non-Permanent Active Militia | Library and Archives Canada Blog

  8. Pingback: A series of unfortunate events | The National Archives blog

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