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Primary Sources in Archives & Special Collections

Identifying and locating primary sources at Purdue University Archives and Special Collections and Beyond

How to Read a Finding Aid

A Finding Aid is a document that provides a description of an archival collection to guide people in using the collection for research.

The finding aid includes a narrative overview of the collection, with a listing of materials by box, folder, or item.  It is expected to assist the researcher in determining whether or not the collection meets his or her research needs.  Researchers of archival materials will encounter findings aids when looking for unpublished papers and archival collections.

Below are the common elements of a finding aid.  Not all finding aids will incorporate these elements, but this sample should reflect a range of options researchers might encounter in finding aid formats.  The links will take you to an actual page of the finding aid for the Stanislav Grof papers with the various elements pointed out to you. 

The complete annotated finding aid

This is the complete finding aid as one document. Below, it is broken down by sections so you can click on the link to each section to see that part of the document.

Elements of a finding aid:

Title Page: The beginning of the finding aid includes the name of the archival repository, the title of the archival collection, finding aid creation information, and a date range for the materials.

Summary Information: This section lists the creator of the materials, call numbers, a brief description (abstract) of the collection contents, the size and extent of the collection (in boxes and cubic feet), and language(s) represented in the collection.

Access and Use: If there are any restrictions placed on an archival collection that will prevent researchers from having access to it this information will be noted here.  Other information in this section includes how the archives received the collection, citation notes and copyright, and storage location.

Related Materials: This section of the finding aid points the researcher to other items in the archives (or elsewhere) that are closely related to the collection described in the finding aid.  The items may be related by origin, subject matter, etc.

Subject Terms/Access Points: This section includes a list of terms, topics, names, etc., covered in the collection and usually linked to a library catalog to provide the researcher with materials in similar categories.

Background Information: This section details the biographical information or organizational history relating to the collection and how it was created.

Scope and Content: This section provides an overview of the types of materials in the collection.

Arrangement: This section informs you how the materials have been arranged.  The different sections of the collection (series and subseries) organize collection content by type of material, format, topic, or some other filing system.

Contents Listing: Sometimes called “Container list,” or “Box and Folder list.”  This is a box-by-box, folder-by-folder listing of the materials stored in the collection.  The level of detail in this section may vary depending on collection scope and individual repository practices.