Posted by Ancestry Team on October 26, 2015 in Australia, Family History Month, Website

This is a guest post by Linda Barnickel

What are Finding Aids?

Finding aids are documents which are created by archives staff to assist researchers in learning about, navigating, and using individual archival collections. Many are available online from the institutions’ websites; others may be only available in hard-copy format for on-site use at the repository. Finding aids can vary considerably in their format and detail. Some may be simple lists, often just reproducing the headings contained on folders within a collection. This finding aid for Record Group 111 from the Tennessee State Library and Archives is one example.

Other finding aids may appear complex and detailed. Examples from the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Tyrrell Historical Library provide similar types of information, though the layout and display of the documents is quite different.

Let’s take a look at each of the major sections that are typically found in modern finding aids.

Descriptive Summary

One of the first sections a researcher may encounter is a summary section that provides the basic information about a collection. Usually this consists of title and creator information, the date span of materials, and the physical extent of the collection, often expressed in cubic feet or linear feet. It also will usually have a very brief abstract describing the subject matter of a collection.

Organization and Arrangement 

Another portion of the finding aid may be labeled “Organization and Arrangement.” This will often appear in the form of an outline, and may refer to groups of records called “Series.” Think of a “series” as a “chunk” of records that were created by the same source and that document the same or similar activities. For example, if I look at my own personal record-keeping, my household financial records might form one series; my personal correspondence with friends and family might be another series; and my genealogical research might make a third series. Series in archival collections may be broken down further into sub-series and even sub-sub series. Although it can be easy to skim over in a finding aid, paying attention to how a collection is organized into series may save you time and will help as you delve further into the details of the finding aid itself.

Historical Summary

This part of the finding aid provides helpful background information. This may take the form of a biographical sketch or, in the case of government, businesses, churches, clubs, or other organizations, an administrative history. Typically, important dates, places, and events will be highlighted. In a biography, this can include birth, death and marriage dates; spouse and children’s names; moves; significant activities such as starting a business, holding elected office, or serving in the military; and other noteworthy occurrences. For institutions, it can include information about when a particular business or club was organized, name changes and mergers, dates of important events, like a plant fire, labor strike, or dissolution; and much more.

For instance, let’s say we have a collection created by attorney Juris Prudence. He was notable for his work lobbying for veterans’ pensions after the Civil War, and served as a county court judge for eleven years. When he died in 1893, he was secretary of his state bar association. This is some of the basic information that would form his biographical sketch.

Scope and Content

Another section of the finding aid will be labelled as “Scope and Content.” This is the part of the finding aid that tells you about the actual materials in the archival collection. It is one of the more important parts of the finding aid, and is worth taking the time to read. While the biographical sketch provides you with much background information, keep in mind that it may or may not have any direct association with the contents of the collection. That’s why the scope and content statement is separate from the biographical sketch.

In the case of Mr. Prudence, the archival materials that make up his collection may scarcely discuss his legal career. Instead, they concentrate on his fondness for hunting. There are photographs taken of hunts in four western states, correspondence with hunting buddies and his hosts, and letters to his wife and son while he was away on hunting trips. This could be a useful collection for persons researching recreational hunting, how attorneys spent their leisure time, including issues related to class and leisure, the lessons Juris sought to teach his son about manhood, courage, and the great outdoors, and what he saw as priorities for his wife while he was away from home. The collection may prove a rich resource for these subjects, but someone seeking to learn about the legal profession and Prudence’s role in it might come away disappointed. That’s why scope and content statements are so important.

Administrative Information

Another section is usually labelled “Administrative Information.” This will indicate the status of intellectual property rights (copyright), and any special physical conditions or special handling notes, such as “some pages torn” or “no photocopies due to fragile condition.”

Index Terms

This section of the finding aid is a list of keywords or “index terms” that help describe the contents of the collection. Sometimes these lists may be quite long. Scanning these lists can be useful to gain a greater understanding of the topics discussed in the collection.

Contents List

Finally, and often occurring at the end, is a detailed “Contents List” or “Box and Folder List”. This is the heart of the finding aid, allowing a researcher to identify which folder in which box she would like to examine. The box and folder list of a finding aid is what enables the researcher to submit a specific request to the archives staff, and is what ultimately brings the original archival documents to her for her examination.

Finding aids can seem intimidating, especially if you are new to archival research. But if you take some time to review them, or ask for guidance from reference staff on how to use them, your search can be made easier. It can be a worthwhile exercise to look at some online, just to become familiarized with some of the terms and common content of finding aids, regardless of institution. That way, you will be better prepared the next time you visit an archives to conduct research in original sources.

Learn more about conducting archival research in this brochure from the Society of American Archivists:

Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research


Linda Barnickel is a professional archivist and freelance writer. She is the author of the award-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory  and has written on numerous historical, genealogical, and archives-related subjects. Learn more about her work at


  1. Lisa

    I do not understand any of this article. Way above my head. When you are new to researching it can be so intimidating to begin with. We need more basic articles to understand and then bring this article to people who may not understand this vernacular in easier terms also. This author has been educated in this type of research but most of us are just starting to search for family and barely have a clue to what they are doing. Don’t get me wrong, this article is great and there are more advanced researchers but please write articles most of us can understand in simpler terms.

  2. Louise Maidens

    Great article.
    Learning about records, and the effective ways of searching those records, is as enjoyable as discovering ancestors and extending the family tree.
    Three cheers for all those archivists, librarians, family history societies and the like who have produced the many and varied finding aids and indexes that allow us to make meaningful searches. Online at Ancestry, the “Source Information” and ”About” sections for the various data collections are similarly essential reading before undertaking a search.
    Louise, Hampshire, England

  3. Joy

    I don’t understand how this works, or what exactly you can get from it. I would like to know more, but put more in simple terms.

  4. Leanne

    Thank you for this article ~ after watching shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?”, this information really helped me see how people got access to some of the original records shown on that TV show. This is very helpful!

  5. Theresa Grieshaber

    A finding aid is simply a user’s guide to a collection of materials. Think of it as a road map. The trouble with this article is that it presents too much information at one time. Better to present one type of finding aid in an essay with multiple examples, and then follow up with subsequent essays on other types. I’m a librarian, so that’s my advice.

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