Finding Aids: Your Roadmap to the Archives
Welcome to Resource Round-Up #3!
If you are interested in doing research in a library or archive, the chances are that you will encounter what archivists call a finding aid. So what is a finding aid, what can it tell you, and how can you use it? Let’s look at an example. For this exercise, we’ll be using the Bustillo Family Papers, a fairly large collection in the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library Collection.
So you’ve already checked out the vertical files on your topic that we have at the Alamo Research Center. If you also explored our catalog, you might have come across an entry with an active hyperlink. Clicking on this link will take you to the digital copy of the finding aid hosted on TARO (Texas Archival Resources Online).
A finding aid is the chief tool that we use to figure out what is in a particular archival collection. The finding aid can be index cards, an inventory or box list, or any other format that documents the general contents of a collection. There are professional standards for what to include the type of finding aid we use at the Alamo Research Center. Here, we are referring to finding aids that include information about the creator of the collection, the scope (breadth) and content (topics covered) contained within the collection, the administrative history of the collection, and other information about the collection. One of the main functions of the archivist is processing, arranging, and describing a manuscript collection using these standards so that it is usable to the public. The finding aid will be your guide as you navigate the collection.
The first division you may see in a finding aid is the “Series.” Depending on the materials in the collection, the series may indicate different types of documents- i.e. a Series for Correspondence, Personal Papers, Business Materials, Photographs, and more. Alternatively, the collection may be separated by creator–this is particularly true in family papers, where each family member may have their own series. Within each series, collections are commonly processed down to the “folder level.” For a collection processed to that level, you can see folder designations (i.e. Correspondence, 1860-1865), but not individual items within the folder. In the case of the Alamo Research Center, many of our finding aids are processed down to the “item level.” This means that you can see individual documents listed on the finding aid. You can see this on the finding aid for Bustillo Family Papers. When you locate an item that you would like to look at, you can request it by providing us the collection name (Bustillo Family Papers) and number (Col 879) plus the box and folder number. It’s like providing coordinates on map that tells us exactly where we need to go!
Here’s a little tip if your catalog search takes you to an entry that links to a large finding aid. If you are looking for mentions of a particular person, place, or event, click on Edit–>Find or use the Ctrl-F shortcut to open the “find” box, type the name in the box, and search for each instance of that term appearing on the web page. It will save you from having to scroll through every page to look for your person!
You can do this! If you get stuck, you can always send us an email (there is a contact option in TARO, or send it directly to firstname.lastname@example.org) or give us a call. We’re here to help. Schedule your research appointment today!