Finding Your Way Through Finding Aids: Archives 101

What’s in a Finding Aid and What’s Not

A Guide, But Not Necessarily Comprehensive

Finding 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 Description

You'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. 

Types of Description

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."

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.

Missing: Not By Accident

Sometimes what you discover (or don't) in a finding aid has less to do with staff time or industry standards, and more to do with historical and internalized racism, classism, sexism, and ignorance of marginalized genders and sexualities. This enters both into what you find in a collection- archival silence, and what you read in the description- archival neutrality.

Archival Silences

Archival silences are the voices you know should be in collections that simply aren't there. You find boxes and boxes of material about upper-middle class White men and women, but the only time you've seen Black people mentioned in your search was a reference in a letter to someone's domestic servant. These gaps in the historical record preserved by archives are real, and are not accidental. Archivists have made decisions over time about who and what is deemed important enough to be preserved, and those decisions have influenced the historical record.

Archival Neutrality 

Archival neutrality is the tone in archival description that seems to erase or avoid inequity. You are looking for documents from a famously violent and cruel plantation owner who enslaved hundreds of Black people, and you find a collection described with "Jane Smith was a wealthy landowner who owned a rich and prosperous rice plantation. It was rare for a woman to manage such a property on her own." That language doesn't feel "neutral" at all, but for a long time many archivists believed that they were just including facts, and that negative details, might feel like interpretation, or editorializing. This practice has come under heavy critique and is less common, but you might still come across collections described this way. 
Written by Dorothy Berry

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