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Archives - What They Are and How to Use Them

This is a general guide to using archival materials - what they are, where to find them, how they are organized, and how to use them. For questions about using the ISU Special Collections and University Archives specifically, click the "questions" tab.

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 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 with archival materials from organization. Biographical notes are used with archival materials from individuals or families.


Historical Note 

The collection description provides an overview of the materials in the collection. It is also referred to as Scope and Contents.


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)


Tutorials and Guides for Using Finding Aids

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