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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 how it may be accessed.

Finding aids used to be primarily printed documents but many are available online. Our finding aids are available online in our archival catalog, CARDinal. Click on the tabs in this box to learn about the common parts of our finding aids.

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

The 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.

Screenshot of part of Warren H. Manning finding aid in CARDinal showing Collection Overview section, with green circles over Identifier, Dates, and Extent fields.

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 may also exist in multiple sections. We have administration information in Collection Overview, Additional Description, Finding Aid & Administrative Information, and Repository Details tabs.

 

Collection Overview  section contains Access Restrictions & Use/Re-Use Restrictions. At the top right hand corner of this section there is also a Citation button.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal in the Collection Overview section, with green circles highlighting Access Restrictions & Use/Re-Use Restrictions fields, and Citation button.

In Additional Description there is information on Copies and Processing Information, and the tab Finding Aid & Administrative Information includes Collection Number, Title, date ranges.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal in the Additional Description section, with green circles highlighting Copies, Collection Files, and Processing Information fields. Green circle highlighting all contents of Finding Aid & Administrative section.Repository Details is the last tab on page and includes contact information.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Repository Details sections with includes contact information for SCUA.

Scope and Content is the collection description provides an overview of the materials in the collection. 

 

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Scope and Content information found in Collection Overview section.Scope and Content is located in the Collection Overview section. 

The Biography/Profile 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 as well as the context the collection was created. Also referred to as a Historical note.

 

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Biography/Profile field in Collection Overview Section.Biography/Profile information is located in Collection Overview.

Electronic Resources provides access (links) to digitized materials from or related to the collection or born-digital records from the collection. Not all collections will have this information because not all of our collections have digitized materials or born-digital materials.

 

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Digital Materials tab.

This section of the finding aid explains how the materials are arranged. Some collections have sections called series (also called record groups or record 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.

 

 Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Collection Information tab at top and on right hand side of finding aid. You can see how a collection is organized by viewing Collection Organization.

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Arrangement field in Additional Description section with green arrow pointing towards it.

Another option is to scroll down to Additional Description and the Arrangement of the collection is shared here also.

The inventory (also referred to as 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.

 

Screenshot of Warren H. Manning papers finding aid in CARDinal, green circle highlighting Collection Inventory tab at top of finding aid menu, beneath Title and Scope and Content. 

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 an "identifier" or "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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