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Special Collections and University Archives National History Day Guide

This guide is for students and teachers who are interested in using our collections for their National History Day Project.

Finding what you need

This page of the guide lists tools you will need to access our collections and how to get started reviewing what we have. You can search for collections via the internet but the actual materials have to be used in our reading room, with the exception of material that is available online.  Most of our materials are found using collection descriptions called "finding aids." A finding aid is a tool that serves to describe the contents of a particular collection, how the collection is organized, and who or where it came from. 

Finding Aids

A finding aid is the primary tool for accessing and understanding archival materials. Finding aids establish a historical context for the collection, describe the scope and contents of the materials, indicate how the collection is arranged, and list where the collection is located and how it may be accessed.

Finding aids are usually documents of several pages which commonly have the following parts. Click on the tabs in this box to learn about the common parts of a finding aid.

NOTE: The examples provided here are from finding aids in the Iowa State University Special Collections and University Archives Department. While the major elements are found in finding aids at most archives, each archives generally uses a slightly different format.

The title page provides basic information about the collection: it's title, where it's located, it's collection number, and a date range for the materials.



The descriptive summary gives the basic information about a collection: a title, the name of the person who created the materials, the dates of the collection, the extent, the reference code, and the repository where the collection is located. There is no standard term for this part of the finding aid, so you may find it described as "collection overview," untitled, or some other variant.

The administrative information section may also be called "access and use." It provides information about restrictions on access, how to cite materials from the collection, and who to contact about copyright and publishing questions. It may also include information about how the collection came to the archives, who wrote the finding aid, and other information related to the management of the collection.


Administrative Information 

The historical or biographical note provides information on the person, family, or organization that created the materials. Historical/Biographical notes are similar to encyclopedia entries and can be great resources for learning about the background of a person or organization. Historical notes are used for archival materials from organization. Biographical notes are used for archival materials from individuals or families.


Historical Note 

The collection description provides an overview of the materials in the collection. It is also called Scope and Content.


Collection Description 

This section of the finding aid explains how the materials are arranged. Some collections have sections called series. Each series may be organized differently. If there are no series in the collection, then the collection is usually organized alphabetically by folder title, chronologically, or in its original order. Common arrangements for collections with series are: alphabetically, by activity area, by format, by topic, chronologically, or some other specified arrangement.



The container list is a comprehensive listing of the materials that are within the collection. The detail provided will vary between collections and between archives. If the collection is arranged in series, the container list will indicate which boxes and folders are found in which series. Each series may also have its own content description, dates, and arrangement.


Container List 

Collection number: The number used to refer to the collection. At Iowa State, these take the form of MS 314 or RS 08/08/04. Sometimes called a "reference code." (formal definition)

Context: How something was used, kept, and/or came into being. (formal definition)

Extent: The physical quantity of material in the collection (formal definition)

Finding Aid: A document prepared by the archives that establishes a historical context for the collection, describes the scope and contents of the materials, indicates how the collection is arranged, and lists where the collection is located and how it may be accessed. (formal definition)

Original Order: The arrangement in which the materials were kept while they were being actively used. (formal definition)

Restriction: A limitation on how or when a person can access and/or use the collection or parts of the collection. (formal definition)

Series: A group of similar records within a collection (formal definition)


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Understanding Finding Aids Tutorial created by San Diego State University Library and Information Access

What's the difference between Manuscript Collections & University Archives?

Both Manuscript Collections and University Archives contain the same types of materials, such as papers photographs, film, audiovisual, artifacts, etc. Their primary difference relates to where the records originate. 

Manuscript Collections include personal papers and organizational records that have a strong emphasis on the major research areas of Iowa State University, but are not directly affiliated with the university.

Selection of Manuscript Collections by Subject

University Archives includes Iowa State University administrative records, faculty papers, and alumni collections.

University Archives are records created by the university -- by faculty, staff, students, colleges, departments, units, centers, institutes, programs, etc.

Subject Index for University Archives


How to Get Started with Manuscript Collections and University Archives

  • Subject Guides are a great place to start. A selection of collections descriptions (finding aids) are grouped together by subject.

  • Start reviewing finding aids (collection descriptions, often includes inventories). Reviewing finding aids can give you an idea of what boxes you may want to look at during your visit. Often the descriptions will be very brief, only titles of folders.
  • Contact us with any questions you have about the collections or if you are having trouble finding what you need.

Accessing Our Online Collections & Resources

  • Visit our website.
  • Go to Online Resources and browse through the different options in order to discover what you need.

How to Get Started with Rare Books

  • Visit the library's web site.
  • Enter your search term in the Quick Search search bar. Limit by "Books & More (ISU Collections)".

  • On the left hand side of the search results are a number of ways to further narrow your search down. Scroll down to Collection and click on PARKS Special Collections.


  • Click on the link of the title you are interested in to get more information.

  • Click on the Locations/Request item tab.
  • This will get you more information on the location/s and availability of the item.
  • Please note the Call Number.

  • Note that this item is also available in the General Collection, in Parks Library Tier 2. If this copy is not checked out, it should be available for checkout at the Circulation desk. The copy in Special Collections must be viewed in our reading room during the hours we are open. It is not available for checkout.
  • Please note the Call Number. It is how you will be able to locate this item on the shelf.

  • For more information on the item itself, look at Details.

  • Clicking on Details will provide you with additional information about the book.
  • Contact us with any questions you have about the collections or if you are having trouble finding what you need.

Contact us

Special Collections & University Archives's picture
Special Collections & University Archives
403 Parks Library
701 Morrill Road
Iowa State University Library
Ames, IA 50011
515 294-6672

Contact us before you visit!

You will get access to the materials much faster if you contact the archives in advance. Here's why:

  • Off-site collections: Some of our collections are stored off site and staff will need time to retrieve them. We ask for 2 business days advance notice.
  • Related materials: Even if you have something specific you want to see (and know how to request it), we may have suggestions for other materials.
  • Check the holdings: As with most archives, many of our collections don't have detailed descriptions. If you're looking for a specific document or piece of information, contact the archives before making a trip so that you won't be disappointed if the collection doesn't have what you're looking for.
  • Research Help: We understand that using archives can be complicated. We know our collections and are truly happy to help!