Finding Your Way Through Finding Aids: Archives 101

Beyond Paper in Finding Aids

Skip the Reading Room

Digitized Items Accessible through Finding Aids

While finding aids are designed to give you an overview of the materials in an archival collections, they can also be tools that provide you direct access to digitized versions of archival materials. In Hollis for Archival Discovery, you can find those digitized items under a tab titled "Digital Materials," or you can find them attached to the item-level records themselves. These digital surrogates can kick start your research, or cancel your reading room trip all together. Research with physical materials in person, or digital materials at home are both equally valid, so you can plan your research to best suit your needs.

Why Are Some Things Digitized and Others Aren't?

Most archives will send a researcher a digital copy of requested materials (sometimes for a fee), if they have the staff capacity. Things that you find attached to finding aids have not only been digitized, but have been saved to an institutional repository for future storage and preservation. Different archives have different processes for deciding what materials are saved and made available for future users. Like most things, these decisions are made in reflection of available resources: storage funds, digitization cost, staff time. At Houghton Library, for example, digital objects end up attached to finding aids in one of two ways. The first way is via patron requests. Sometimes a patron orders a complete items, full folder, or whole box of archival material. In that situation, the archivists will save those full items for future users. The second way is through digitization projects. These are longer term, planned out initiatives to digitize a large group of materials, like an entire collection or a curated selection of materials on a theme or topic.

Not a Print-Out

Born-Digital Materials in Finding Aids

Archival materials can encompass a wide range of formats, from papyri and printer paper to floppy disks and whole computers. Materials like floppy disks, hard drives, CD’s, thumb drives, websites, and data are often referred to as born-digital, meaning they originate on a computer. Each format brings with it unique considerations that affect archival workflows: floppy disks, for example, often require floppy disk drives to read the content on the disk and move it to more stable storage media (such as an up-to-date computer or cloud storage) for processing, whereas a CD would require an optical disc drive. The format of a material can impact the level of description you see in a finding aid due to the differing workflows, equipment, and staff time necessary and available to process and describe these materials

Even though archival materials come in many formats, born-digital media like hard drives can hold photographs, documents, audio, video, websites, in addition to other unique types of data. In finding aids, born-digital materials can be described at a range of levels, from minimally descriptive (e.g. 1 floppy disk) to a high, detailed level of description, explaining the type of content (photos, oral histories, etc.); the type of media (format); the size of the media or of the content on the media; descriptive information found written directly onto the media, information about processing; file lists; and even access to the digital objects or files themselves. Often, due to the complexity of preserving born-digital materials, information, such as file lists and access to the objects themselves, is left out or not present in the finding aid. 

If the content from the born-digital archival materials is accessible, you may be able to find it in the ‘Digital Materials’ tab on Hollis for Archival Discovery. However, more often than not access to born-digital materials is mediated through the archive’s staff, usually requiring different methods for accessing those materials than those you can access from Hollis via the ‘Digital Materials’ tabs and buttons. Access to born-digital materials may be mediated through the archive’s staff for a variety of reasons, from issues of privacy and confidentiality to technical difficulties delivering this material online.  


Born-digital: objects that originate on a computer
Media: something, such as a hard disk, on which information or data is stored

Written by Monique Lassere and Dorothy Berry 

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