On Finding Aids: An Archives Quickie

I named this blog “Finding Aid” and, outside of the About Me page, I never explained what a finding aid is. Considering the overwhelming majority of the blog’s followers are not people from the library and information science fields (seriously, I don’t know how you people found your way here or why you followed, but thanks!), I figured I’d shine some light on the subject.

finding aid, in lay terms, is an organizational tool used by archivists to identify and describe the information in a collection, in an organized manner.

In brief, a finding aid has:

  • A short collection description and a biography of the creator(s)
  • Dates of items from the oldest to newest
  • Collection size and types of media included
  • History of ownership  and how the collection was acquired by an archive
  • Information on how the collection was processed
  • Descriptions of the different topics represented in the collection
  • A list of what is stored in which container (folder, box, shelf)

It’s more in-depth than that, of course, but a finding aid is basically a descriptive document that tells the who, what, where, when, why, and how of a collection for the purpose of identifying and accessing the stuff in it. For more specific and technical information on finding aids, check out this PDF published by Special Collections at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, or this how-to from the Society of American Archivists.

Finding aids aren’t just for archives. A home inventory is a descriptive tool that is good for estate planning and filing out renters or home owners insurance claims. It’s easier to print a copy off the Cloud than it is to rack your brain for a list of all your (or your parents’ or grandparents’) earthly possessions in an emergency or under emotional distress.

Got a whole bunch of photos in shoe boxes and only you know who’s who and what’s what? Develop a finding aid for your family’s photographic collection so that knowledge won’t be scattered to the wind when your ashes are.


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