A Guide, But Not Necessarily ComprehensiveFinding aids are great at guiding you to where archival collections are located, and giving you an overview of the content, but they won't necessarily have all the information you need or want. Sometimes the things that might feel obviously important to you are left out of the finding aid for reasons including historical practice, staff time, simply just differing ideas of what matters. This can be frustrating when you are trying to find what you need, but you are in luck! When the finding aid stymies you, you can always contact the archives' staff to help get you to where you want to go. Here are two finding-aid writing practices that you might come across
Minimal DescriptionYou've found the collection you are interested in, hooray! Opening up the finding aid though, you see things like "Smith, John to Jane Smith. 2985 Letters, 1920-1950," or "Photographs, 1-6." That's sort of helpful, but gives you no information about what is in those 2,985 letters or which boxes of photographs are family vacation snapshots, and which are professional photos of famous dancers.
We all know this isn't a researcher's top choice, but there is a reason you'll come across it. In earlier times, an archive might take in a big collection and let it sit, inaccessible to researchers for years and years. The reasoning was that, without a detailed finding aid, researchers won't be able to find what they need so the boxes just sat on the shelves until there was time. Changing ideas around access led to the creation of these more high level, minimally described, finding aids which are specifically designed to give you just enough an idea of what's there that you can come visit and archive and at least know what box you are looking for.
Now this collection is super described! Every single letter has its own item-level entry in the finding aid, but when you go deeper it seems like the archivist's are focusing on things that don't feel important to you, or even make sense. "Smith, John to Jane Smith. A.L.S. n.d. n.p.," is the title, but there is no information about what's in the letter itself! There's just a bunch of letters in the title. Those letters are acronyms used traditionally in finding aids (the New York State Library goes through them on this site). The title translates to "Smith John to Jane Smith. Autograph Letter Signed. No Date. No Place."
Types of Description
You don't care about the type of letter, you want to know what John had to say to Jane! If it feels like that description is the opposite of what you are looking for, it's important to remember these two types of descriptive focuses: ofness and aboutness. Many finding aids describe materials focusing on the ofness of an item: it is a letter, it is handwritten (autograph), it is signed. What you were looking for is description focused on aboutness: what is the content of the letter? Neither type of description is wrong, so it's important to know this is not a lack of understanding and is just a difference in interest.