Finding Your Way Through Finding Aids: Archives 101

What is an archive? What is a finding aid?

The Archive? Our Archives

Background and Definitions of Archives 

An archive is a collection of materials that have been brought together or collected by a person, family, group, or company. Archives are organized by provenance, which is the concept that a single creator, which can be a person, family, group, or organization, is responsible for a collection. Provenance is the primary reason behind why collections exist and are organized they are, often with multiple subjects and types of materials contained within a single collection—as people’s lives often are involved in many different areas, deal with many subjects, and create a variety of types of paperwork and other materials.
Many archival collections are the personal materials gathered as part of a person’s life or a family’s existence, while others are the records of groups or companies, created as part of their everyday functions. These collections may include any number of types of documents and objects that relate to the creator’s life; you might imagine them as kind of the papers and other materials that fall behind as a person or family goes about life. They often contain correspondence, photographs, personal writings and diaries, as well as papers relating to the creator’s professional work, hobbies, and other interests.  These collections are typically titled as “papers” for personal or family collections. In the case of organization, group, or company materials, these collections often contain the papers that were used to establish and organize the group, annual and financial reports, correspondence, employee or member information, as well as additional materials that might include information about the organization and its members. Materials created by an organization, company, or other group are usually titled with the term “records.”
Other archival collections are groups of materials collected by someone or a group, often on a particular subject or area of interest. These materials are often titled as “collections,” as they are groups of materials intentionally collected by someone rather than the materials gathered and garnered by daily life or function. You may also see that library and archival repositories are the collectors of materials on certain subjects, which means the institution has intentionally collected materials of a certain type or on a particular topic.

Still Processing 

Introduction to Archival Processing

A finding aid is a helpful document that guides you through an archival collection. Finding aids have historically been documents with many purposes, but the important thing for you as a user to know is that finding aids serve as surrogates for the archival collection, with information describing all the materials including in a single archival collection. It’s important to keep in mind that finding aids come in a variety of styles and formats, and some finding aids are considerably more detailed than others.
Finding aids are organized hierarchically, mimicking the arrangement of the materials in the collection. This means that within a finding aid, you will find multiple levels of information about what is in the collection, from information that details the collection of materials as a single, large group, to smaller groups archivists call series and subseries, as well as small groupings of files and items.
All finding aids will look a little different because all collections are different; they are different sizes and have different groupings and organizations. Archivists have an additional foundational value, called “respect des fonds,” which means that we not only understand groups of materials based on who created them, but we try to leave alone any arrangement of the materials that the creator may have had. This means you may find files labeled correspondence, for example, which might also include photographs, flyers, and ephemera, because the creator kept those materials together, maybe after receiving them together. That’s important for understanding the context of those materials, and thus we try to keep them together. That being said, sometimes collections come to the archives with no clear arrangement—literally just boxes of stuff piled in them—and archivists have to provide an arrangement in order to make the collection more usable, making the groupings of materials come together after the creator no longer has the materials. This should be mentioned in the finding aid, but can be important for understanding what you see once you get into an archival box and are looking at materials and how they are ordered.

Finding aids will provide description not only of the collection, but also the creator. You can usually find information about who created or collected the materials and why they’ve been brought together in a finding aid, which provides context for the documents you’ll find inside and give you an understanding of why they are all grouped together in this archival collection.

Your Map to Our Archives: Finding Aids

Description and Overview of Archival Finding Aids

Finding aids are created as the result of archival processing, which is all the steps archivists take to make a collection usable for researchers. This can involve many steps, but at heart is the process of an archivist gaining an understanding of a collection and its existing arrangement, or, if the creator didn’t organize their own materials, arranging the collection into aggregate groups that make sense based on what is in the collection, both topically and in type of materials. Then, once the collection is arranged into groups, the archivist writes a finding aid and other records to provide documentation about the collection and make it accessible to users.
Sometimes processing includes the rehousing of archival materials, meaning that documents are swapped into new folders and boxes, photographs and other media are sleeved or interleaved with paper to preserve them, and other physical steps to make them more usable for researchers for the long-term. Collections might be physically rearranged from the way they arrived at an archival repository. Sometimes this means that content from digital media that is no longer safe for longtime storage is copied over using special software for easier access by users. Processing can also be quite simple, if a collection is fairly organized, and may just involve the writing of a brief finding aid and no rehousing or rearrangement. You may see collections that have a note that they have been minimally processed, which are these particular cases.


Terms all link out to the Society of American Archivists' Dictionary of Archival Terminology, but we've provided some simple definitions of our own 


Written by Betts Coup and Dorothy Berry

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