Finding Your Way Through Finding Aids: Archives 101

Reading a Finding Aid

Archivists Love to Organize

Understanding the way a finding aid is structured is critical to understanding what is in a collection. Finding aids are arranged hierarchically, so there are multiple levels of content describing the various parts of an archival collection. You will find description of the collection as an entirety, and then description of the smaller groupings that make up that whole collection, which are often called series. These are groups of materials that might be of the same type of document or on a similar topic, and they may be comprised of smaller groupings, called subseries, which are similarly organized by type or topic. They may have been arranged this way by the creator of the collection or by an archivist as part of processing, in order to make the collection easier to user. The final level of material you may see described in a finding aid might be either files, small groupings of materials, or items, which are simply each individual item that is in the collection.

Context and Content 

Scope and Content Notes 

There are a few parts of a finding aid that can provide a lot of information about a collection, its creator, and its contents. Perhaps the best place to start your reading of a finding aid is the Scope and Content Note, which will describe what is included in the collection. This note will include information about what types of documents you might find, their subjects and the people, places, and organizations described in the documents, as well as an understanding of the span of time of the materials in the collection. The scope and content note may also describe how the collection is organized, as it may mention the contents of each unique series, but it also might just be a general description of the contents of the collection. 

Biographical/Historical Notes

Another note you will often see in finding aids is the Biographical or Historical Note. Collections with creators who are people or families will have biographical notes, while organizational records will have historical notes. This note is exactly what is sounds like it is: it includes information about the creator of the collection, their life; who they might have written to and what the topics they were interested might be; what they did professionally and recreationally; where they lived; and their life dates. Biographical notes might also outline relationships between the creator and family and friends, colleagues and mentors, and other people who were important in their lives. Historical notes for groups do the same kind of description of the organizations which created the records, with information about how they came together, their purpose and functions, mission, important events in their history, and people that have been a part of their history.

Subjects and Agents 

In Harvard finding aids, you may see a list of names of people and groups, as well as topics, places, and types of materials. These are what we call “access points,” as they are all terms you can search across Hollis or Hollis for Archival Discovery and locate other materials that also include information about these agents (people and groups) or subjects. Agent names and subject terms are devised from standardized lists provided by the Library of Congress, Name Authority Cooperative Program, and other institutions, and they have particular formats. Subjects in particular may appear to be strings of words almost in reverse order; this is how the Library of Congress organizes them. Once you get more accustomed to looking at them, this might feel easier, but it’s important to know that these are terms you can use to search across the many archives at Harvard to potentially locate related materials. For example, if you search a single name in its authorized form in Hollis, as you will see in the agents and subjects listing, you will see a long list of all the collections that have that person included as an agent. That might offer a lot more resources than just the first finding aid you’ve found.
Subject terms can also be troubling, racist, and/or biased; the Library of Congress list of subject headings has many historical terms in use that are degrading, inappropriate, and inaccurate. We are actively working to adjust these terms and provide appropriate, accurate description of our materials, removing the historical terms and supplementing our records with terms from other organizations providing subject heading information, but you may still see those terms within our records.

Levels of Description





Written by Betts Coup

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