The beauty of finding aids

An undergrad walks into a bar…well, not exactly…


Photo found here.

Before I knew how to describe finding aids, a common term of the archival lexicon, I understood a need for them. As an undergraduate, I was tasked with conducting primary research as the basis of a term paper. I headed to a nearby university’s special collections library, which held my collection of interest. For some reason, the details of this collection could not be found online–I think this was at a time that online finding guides and the general presence of archival repositories in the virtual sphere was just becoming popularized. I arrived at the university, collection name in hand, but without any real understanding of the contents of the collection.

When I approached the research librarian, I wondered why I couldn’t be more independent in this process. Why can’t I view a list of the contents before I manhandle the physical collection? Couldn’t I spend more efficient research time critically thinking about the few items that interested me rather than parsing through the entire collection in search of those items?

NAACP, findingaid

NAACP finding aid, Library of Congress. Found here.

Oh, how right I was!

The librarian, in true form with his job description, oriented me to the special collections space, then offered me a paper copy of what he called “The Finding Aid.” Pretty aptly named, this document aided me through the contents of the collection, in such great detail, that I could request 2 boxes out of many that contained items of interest.  It’s a document “that facilitates the discovery of information” in a collection (definition found here) Later, I’d learn that finding aids was just one name–there’s also “finding guides, “inventories,” and “collection guides,” to name a few.

I learned a few lessons from this inaugural stint in the archives: First, reference librarians are smart; archivists asked the questions that plagued me long before I stepped foot in the archives; long before I existed on this planet; finding aids are immensely helpful; but when done poorly, they are irritating for researchers who rely on these documents for insight into a collection.

Since then…

I’ve been preoccupied with finding aids, these quirky maps of a collection geared toward researchers of all kinds. During graduate school, I was so preoccupied in fact that I wrote my library school master’s paper on them. You can find a copy of my paper here. Here’s a quick quote from the introduction of my paper,

Finding aids are one of the most explicit tools that the archival community utilizes  to illustrate the product of their work to users, or perhaps, as Derrida claims, to identify  the beginnings of a collection. This study borrows Richard Pearce-Moses’ definition of finding aids as “a tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of  records” establishing physical, legal and intellectual control of a collection. Finding aids are a tool of information about the contents of a collection, its availability and restrictions, and the specific context from which the collection was created. They are the  representation of the collection. Finding aids are a map of the way a particular collection has been appraised, accessioned, processed and made accessible to users.

I was most interested in the way archivists construct a narrative within the structure of a finding aid. And I attempted to identify this history-making by isolating incidences of subjectivity, context and agency (hence the title of my paper!) In the end, turns out I was right…or on my way to being right. Archivists infuse their own subjectivity into finding aids with significant implications. Those implications are for another day! For now, I’d like to talk about the work being done on the ACLS finding aid.

Introducing the structured representation of the ACLS collection, a representation of the organization itself…


At the risk of getting too “meta” or even too “comparative lit major” on everyone, it’s important to understand that an archival collection represents an aspect of the  material history of a person or entity. It’s not an exacting mirror. You can read more about that in this blog post. ACLS is a robust, thriving organization. It’s highly improbable that its record keepers could keep every piece of material generated by the organization and sent to the organization documenting daily work. Instead, we assume that collections like this one represent the highlight reel, the best of, the significant and defining points in ACLS’s near-100-year history. So, the collection itself is a representation of the organization. Now, bring in the finding aid. Since the finding aid is a map of the collection, it too plays a role as a kind of representation and interpretation of the collection. It will include a list of folder titles with dates that will indicate to researchers what those folders contain in the hope of narrowing their search.

There are a few goals of  finding aid, but that’s chief among them: held users get to the stuff.

For ACLS, that stuff comes in 2 main parts, creatively named Part I and Part II. My job is to merge the finding aid already written for Part I with Part II. I’ll make sure these are integrated properly and ensure they make sense intellectually, so that researchers can move between the Parts without an artificial boundary. Next, I’ll encode the finding aid with encoded archival description. This means that I’ll use XML coded language, specific to archivists, to wrap the written finding aid, so that it can be read and searched online.

I’ll add all the front matter that’s required of the Library of Congress, so that the finding aid complies with the rules of its new home (the Library is like a strict parent…if you live under my roof, you’ll follow my rules–although, the archivists here are pretty darn creative in understanding that all collections are unique and pose different challenges).

After that, researchers will be able to locate the finding aid online through the Library website or through a quick Google search. They will have an understanding from the guide of the following:

  • History of ACLS
  • Scope of the collection including date span and big recurring themes, entities or people
  • Size/extent of the collection (the Library measures this in terms of items and boxes)
  • Contents list
  • Index of terms (which is important for ACLS, which uses plenty of acronyms in its daily exchanges)
  • Ways of using the collection including restrictions, over size materials and notes on formats
  • A built-in search function that allows researchers to search within the finding aid for further refinement of queries

Finding aids are on the verge of transformation. In the library and archives world, professionals are using finding aids as more than static maps of a collection. Some are allowing for interactivity and customization by using databases, metadata and tagging. Others are creating modular finding aids. Still others are using encoded archival context to make connections with other finding aids and collections that may be similar in some way to the original collection–say, about 18th century generals, or humanities organizations (wink wink) or church records.

There is so much more that we can do in thinking about finding aids. For now, ACLS’s will be constructed with detail and care with the assumption that it will get a lot of usage by all of you!

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