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Introduction to Primary Source Research: Understanding Finding Aids

Content Warning

Historical records are unfiltered for derogatory terms and painful events, so just be aware. Sometimes there will be words used in legacy (meaning old) finding aids that you’ll be uncomfortable with. While we can fix finding aids, we cannot fix history. Take breaks if you’re feeling uncomfortable.

See also: Yale Statement on Harmful Language in Archival Description

What is a finding aid and why should I use it?

A finding aid describes a collection of archival records, personal papers, or manuscripts. It is a tool to help researchers determine if the materials in a collection relate to their research, find where materials are located, and understand and interpret the materials they are using. All of the WVRHC's online finding aids include a brief summary (abstract) of the collections they describe, and some include more detailed descriptions and inventories.

Each finding aid contains information on:

  • the title of the collection,
  • who created the materials, if known,
  • dates of the records,
  • size of the collection (extent), and
  • access restrictions, if any.

Some finding aids also include information on:

  • the history or biography of the creator of the records (Historical Note),
  • how the materials are organized (usually in the Collection Scope and Content Note),
  • inventories or contents lists of boxes or folders in a collection, and
  • selected topics covered by the records.

Important Parts of a Finding Aid


Reading a Finding Aid

The diagram above gives you a short list of things to pay attention to when you're looking through finding aids. These sections can help you find materials that are useful for your research, weed out ones that aren't, and help you plan your time when visiting the archives.

  • Scope and Contents is where you will find the description of what is in the collection and will really help you determine if this is a collection you would want to request.
  • Extent will tell you the size of the collection and the types of containers - so this is 2011 linear feet, which is basically 2011 record cartons
    • This is where the collection organization on the right hand side of the page comes in handy. It tells you where things live in the collection so you can pinpoint what boxes you’ll actually want to request. If there isn’t one of these, there’s probably a control folder and you can ask us to see that.
  • Conditions governing access will let you know if there are rules or restrictions for accessing the material. It will also tell you if the material is held off site, so that’s important in terms of timing your visit. You can see that this collection is held off site, which means we’ll have to get it to the center in advance of your appointment. Some repositories will have schedules for bringing off site materials to their reading room so it’s good to pay attention to that.

Further Reading on Finding Aids

If you'd like more information on how to read finding aids or what kinds of information you'll find in them, The Hows and Whys of Finding Aids by Dorothy Berry and Betts Coup is an excellent primer.