Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

What is a Finding Aid?

An Introduction

The concept of the archival finding aid is sometimes introduced as a sort of inventory to an archival collection. However, most finding aids are slightly more complex than a typical inventory. Granted, one of the main purposes of a finding aid is to describe the contents of an archival collection. Incorporating some form of inventory in the finding aid helps scholars decide if a collection's contents are relevant to their research. A collection inventory also enables the institution that facilitates access to archival holdings to retrieve only specific parts of requested collections (collections that can be quite large in their aggregate wholes).

However, a finding aid often goes beyond the description of the collection's materials themselves and into descriptions of the contexts in which the materials were created. This contextual information can take the form of biographical notes and/or administrative histories about the people or institutions that created the material; custodial histories outlining the chain of ownership of the materials being described; processing and arrangement notes detailing the collection's current (and former) organization and what (if any) arrangement-related interventions the archivist(s) made while processing the collection; and/or any conditions governing access and use of the materials in the collection (e.g., can the material in the collection be photographed and used in a publication, is the collection stored offsite and how long does the retrieval process take, etc.). The most succinct definition of a finding aid provided by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) is simply, "a description that typically consists of contextual and structural information about an archival resource."[1]

Where are USC's Finding Aids?

You can search and browse USC's archival finding aids at USC's instance of ArchivesSpace or at the Online Archive of California (OAC). USC's ArchivesSpace interface--also known as "Archives at USC"--is better at reflecting hierarchical collection descriptions (collection inventories that are grouped and structured under series or categories that you can expand and collapse). The OAC interface can be more useful for users who want to see all of a collection's description loaded on one page (or just a few pages), which can better facilitate Ctrl+F text searches within a single view / web page. The OAC also includes finding aids for archival resources held by California-based cultural heritage institutions outside of USC (see Networks of Finding Aids and Digital Collections for similar aggregators of archival resources).

Select the two links below to see the same collection's finding aid as it appears in ArchivesSpace (first link) vs. the Online Archive of California (second link):

Levels of Description

One other factor to consider when working with finding aids is that the level of description that an archivist applies to collection materials can vary significantly. Archivists describe some collections broadly at a collection level and others very specifically at an item or folder level, depending on the potential research value and the degree of similarity across the archival material being described. So, for example, if I am going through an unprocessed box and I find a unique photograph of the creator of that collection standing with a prominent politician or literary figure, I would describe that photograph at an item level – meaning that the photograph would get its own descriptive sub-record listing the people featured in the photograph, its creation date, possibly a physical description of the photograph's size and format, and the box and folder numbers reflecting the photograph's location within the collection's arrangement. If, on the other hand, I was processing a collection and found a box of unrelated financial ledgers and receipts with no contextual information or links to other items in the collection, I could describe that whole box with a single descriptive sub-record titled something like, “financial ledgers and receipts” with an inclusive date range that covers when these documents were created along with the box number within the collection's numbering sequence.

As you will see on the next page, the level(s) of description used in a finding aid can affect how you request access to the archival materials being described.

Further Reading:
Bo Doub: Networks of Finding Aids and Digital Collections
Dorothy Berry: Finding your Way through Finding Aids: Archives 101
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