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Help Guide

How to Read a Finding Aid

Finding aids are tools that facilitate the discovery of information within a collection of records. This page breaks down the essential parts of a finding aid. This will help you interpret the information presented in a finding aid. The sections of a finding aid explained here are broken down into six parts: Summary Information; History; Scope and Content Notes; Restrictions; Subject Terms; Citation; and Collection Inventory.

Summary Information

This part of a finding aid states the collection title, collection number, and dates of the material. The publisher field tells you the name of the library or archive in which the collection can be found. The physical description will tell you the size or extent of the collection. The abstract gives a brief description of what you can expect to find in the collection. 


Biography or Organizational History

The biography or organizational history section of the finding aid will have a biography on either the person or family (if it a collection of personal papers) or history of the organization. This section will help you to understand the context in which these records were created and provide important background information.

Scope and Content Notes

The scope and content notes in a finding aid will describe what will be found in the collection. It may also tell you what will not be found in a given collection.


Restrictions on Access and Use

Some collections have special instructions for how a collection may be used. Sometimes this is because material is stored at off-site facilities and boxes must be requested in advance, and other times the material may contain sensitive or confidential material. These kinds of notes appear in restrictions on access or restrictions on use notes.

Controlled Access

Authoritative headings for people and topics most representative of a collection may be found in the control access or subject terms fields. You may find it useful to use subject terms when searching for additional collections relevant to your topic.

Citation- Citing the Collection

Most finding aids will also have a preferred citation that is the basic information needed for a citation. 

Collection Inventory

Archives collections are not usually described item by item, but rather at the series, box, and folder level. This information will help you identify folders within collections that you may wish to review. At most libraries and archives, you will request material by providing the collection name and box numbers.