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UHCL Archives and Special Collections

Information about the collections of and on planning research at the UHCL Archives and Special Collections; created/updated by Matthew M. Peek

Basics of A Finding Aid

A lot of people do not know what a finding aid is, how it is structured, or how it can be used to locate original historical materials within a given archival collection. Finding aids can be defined as documents that arrange "archival resources in context by consolidating information about the collection, such as acquisition and processing; provenance; biographical or historical notes; scope of the collection, including size, subjects, media; organization and arrangement; and an inventory of the boxes, folders, and other containers in the collection [Resource 1]. It is intended to preserve information about how the collections were created, used, and originally organized, to help researchers understand the relationship of different parts of archival collections to the other parts [Resource 2].

Put simply, finding aids are documents written by archivists that describe archival manuscript collections. They are online and searchable, and searching finding aids is the way to identify archival materials that may be of interest for any given researcher. To help orient you to the document, let's look at the structure of a sample finding aid. Here is a link to the UHCL Neumann Library Digital Repository for the finding aid for the archival collection Robert Heselmeyer Papers, on which the following discussion will be based: https://uhcl-ir.tdl.org/handle/10657.1/755.

This is the finding aid for a collection of papers from the entire career of Robert Heselmeyer at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) from 1966 to 2004. He worked as an engineer on the Project Apollo missions as a Lunar Module Flight Controller, specifically as the Vehicle Systems Engineer for the Telemetry, Electrical, and (EVA) Mobility Unit (or TELMU). The collection is is 4.8 linear feet in extent (or just less than 5 banker's boxes of materials). As you look/scroll down the pages of the finding aid, you will see the collection number, "HSF-56" and some basic information about this collection and the UHCL Archives. As you look/scroll further down, you will see a series of named note fields (or elements) listed in bold text that, basically, are repeated in all finding aids (sometimes with different names or location in a finding aid depending on the archives' practices). This means you will be able to rely on seeing these or similar elements in any finding aids from any repository.)

The most important of these note fields are:

  • Abstract: A short paragraph or two that provides an overview of the formats, content and subjects, dates, and general nature of the materials in the collection.
  • Extent: This is where you get a statement of the size of the collection, usually expressed in total linear feet of materials. It is often useful to know the size of a collection before viewing it, just so you know what you are working with. A collection of a single folder may be of limited value, for example, or a collection of that is over 20 linear feet may take some time to work through.
  • Administrative Information: The administrative information is an all-encompassing term for several note fields that contain information related to the acquisition of, use and access of, and way to cite an archival collection. These note fields include: Restrictions on Access (such as if there are classified materials, materials with Personally Identifiable Information that is restricted, etc.); Restrictions on Use (if there are any copyright restrictions, usage requirements by collection donor, etc., in the collection); Preferred Citation (which has the exact structure pre-written for researchers to use in citing materials in the collection); and Acquisition (how the Archives acquired the materials and from where or whom, like from a donor or by transfer).
  • Biographical/Historical Note: In the case of a collection that relates to an individual, a family, or a group of individuals, a biographical note presents the major details of that person's life or the lives of the people involved. The point here is not to go into great depth, but to offer researchers with enough context for subjects or dates covered in the archival materials in the collection. In the case where an association, business, group, agency, school, or some other institution or entity is involved, the note will usually be labeled as a historical note. UHCL Archives staff spends time researching the information for these notes, based largely on reliable publicly-available information, information in the collection's materials, and information from the donors. Often, a lot of information about specific of a person or group's history are missing, so archivists work to write as accurate a biographical or historical note as possible without being speculative. Sometimes, donors write their own notes which archivists edit for accuracy and readability.
  • Related and/or Separated Material: Not all finding aids will include these notes. If there are other specific materials that may be of use to a researcher, or if material originally contained in the collection has been separated from it due to physical size or condition, then these notes will appear. Often, Related Material will be used to list to archival collections or materials related to the collection either in an archives' own holdings or available at other institutions.
  • Processing Information note: Many archives do not utilize this note in their finding aids. UHCL Archives mandates the use of this note is applicable to the collection. The Processing Information note, according to the Describing Archives: A Content Standard (Version 2019.0.3), provides "information about actions of the archivist, custodians, or creators of the records or conventions in the finding aid that may have an impact on a researcher's interpretation of the records or understanding of the information provided in the finding aid." This include information about how the collection was originally organized or ordered when the UHCL Archives acquired it; the condition of the materials or physical issues with collection materials; how titles for materials were devised (such as how folders were titled); any special preservation steps taken with collection materials; and explanation for any specific numbering or container numbers (such as how photographs or motion picture films are numbered in the collection and what the numbers mean)."
  • Arrangement note: For many collections, especially larger ones, it is helpful to divide the materials into smaller segments of similar materials. These are called Series and/or Subseries. In the case of the Heselmeyer Papers, the collection is divided into 11 series and subseries arranged according to the purpose of the items or NASA mission/project name in series and subseries. The Arrangement note will describe the various Series, if there are any, or may simply state, for example, that all materials are presented in a particular order, such as chronological or alphabetical by the correspondents' last name (for correspondence collections, for example). A smaller collection may not have an Arrangement note. 
  • Scope and Content note: This is a description of the contents of the collection. It is a more detailed version of the abstract, and provides additional context for the materials. 
  • Subject Terms: If subject heading have been applied to the collection, they will appear here, with subject headings always taken directly from or built in the format of the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH).
  • Collection Inventory: This note should appear in all finding aids. The Collection Inventory gives a list of the containers (when there are enough materials to fit in more than one folder and/or box) and their titles in which the archival materials have been arranged within a collection. These containers are usually listed in terms of Box Number and Folder Number. Some collections are arranged as individual items, with items having individual item numbers instead of box and/or folder numbers. In the case of the Heselmeyer Papers, there are 11 document boxes. If the collection is arranged into series and subseries, the series and subseries descriptive notes are arranged in the Collection Inventory, to help descriptively break up the collection for researchers.

Resource 1: Dictionary of Archives Terminology, Society of American Archivists, s.v. “finding aid,” accessed July 31, 2022, at https://dictionary.archivists.org/entry/finding-aid.html 

Resource 2: The idea for, structure of, and a lot of the content for this field was taken from Virginia Tech University Special Collections and University Archives' LibGuides page "A Basic Introduction: C. Research," viewed at https://guides.lib.vt.edu/c.php?g=345047&p=2425014

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