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Finding Aids

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If you want to find research materials in archives, you will need to read a Finding Aid. This document describes the materials in an archival collection and gives you a summary of the materials housed in that collection. Reading a Finding Aid before viewing a collection can help save time and ensure that you find materials relevant to your research. In many ways, a Finding Aid is like a library catalog entry because it provides you with information about the contents of a book and what materials are in an archival collection. When you search an archival website, your search results will likely direct you to a Finding Aid of a collection.

You may wonder: “If I find a collection that I’m interested in, why can’t I just check it out to determine if it is what I need for my research?” The answer to this question reveals how archives are different from libraries. First, archival materials never leave the archives, so all collections must be viewed in the archives. Second, some archival collections are quite large. It would take a long time to study an entire collection to determine if it is relevant to your research. To save you time and make your research experience easier, a Finding Aid contains three unique elements that will help you determine if a particular collection is worth studying: the Scope and Content Note, Biographical/Administrative History Note, and Contents Listing.

Scope and Content Note

A Scope and Content Note is a brief summary of the contents of a collection. In addition to a summary, a Scope and Content Note also contains highlights and limitations of a collection so that researchers can know whether the collection will be useful for their research. Sometimes a Scope and Content Note is called a “Scope Note.”

A Scope and Content Note often begins by briefly explaining where the collection came from (e.g. a family or corporation), what years the collection covers (e.g. 1882-1967), and the general kinds of materials it contains—such as letters, reports, or photographs. If a collection is large, you may encounter a list of series in the Scope and Content Note or in another part of the Finding Aid. A series is a group of archival materials within a collection that are alike in some way. Sometimes materials in a series are of the same format, such as a series of photographs. Other times, materials in a series share the same function, such as a series of business meeting minutes. You can use series to guide your research. If you are searching for a particular topic within a collection, you may search for a series that relates to your topic and exclude series that are not related. Below you will find an example of a Scope and Content Note from a collection in Purdue’s Karnes Archives and Special Collections.

Biographical/Administrative History Note

A Biographical/Administrative History Note explains the history of the creator of the collection. If the creator of the collection is a person, then the Note will provide a biography. If the creator of the collection is an institution or business, then the Note will provide an administrative history. Sometimes this section is called a “Background.”

A Biographical/Administrative History Note provides information that establishes an historical context for the collection. In other words, this Note tells researchers the history of the people and organizations involved in creating the materials in the collection. The Note might include information on significant dates, major events, and important people related to the collection. You can use the Biographical/Administrative History Note to determine basic facts about the people and organizations in the collection. For example, if you are looking for information on people who attended a particular university, you might search a Biographical Note to determine if a particular person attended the university you are researching. Below you will find an example of a Biographical/Administrative History Note from a collection in Purdue’s Karnes Archives and Special Collections.

Contents Listing

A Contents Listing is a list of the materials in a collection that also includes information about the physical location of the materials. For example, many collections are housed in boxes. A Contents Listing will give you a list of boxes and the materials housed in each box. Sometimes a Contents Listing is referred to as “Container Contents” or an “Inventory.”

You can use a Contents Listing to determine which boxes hold materials that would be relevant to your research. Inventories vary in length and detail. Some inventories list every single item in a collection. If the collection is large, the Contents Listing will be quite long, and it may take you some time to find the materials that you are looking for. In this case, it may be useful to first examine the Scope Note and find the series that is most relevant to your research topic. This may help narrow your search by restricting it to only the boxes in that series. Other inventories do not list every single item. Instead, they may give a summary of materials housed in a folder or a box. For example, a Contents Listing may state that a folder contains reports from a certain date range. If you are looking for reports from these years, this folder may be worth examining in detail.