Shades Of The Departed

June 20

A Monthly - Weekend With Shades - Column

Creating finding aids is a major part of my job, yet I always feel like they would take too many words to explain. Really, though, there is nothing complicated about a finding aid – at least in terms of what it is and what it is supposed to do. Currently, there are professional standards and best practices guidelines that define or prescribe what the structure and content of a finding aid should be, and this is what I think of when I think about finding aids. In getting bogged down in the details, I forget that finding aids are simply that: aids for finding stuff.

What finding aids do is tell you what is in a collection. Sometimes it might do this through item level lists, where each document is listed, but this takes a lot of time, which is why it is not the typical goal in these More Product, Less Process days. The original item level finding aid to the Oscar Wilde collection at my library was over 1000 pages – quite unwieldy to say the least. I’ve recently re-encoded and divided the original document into 5 smaller parts, hopefully making it a bit easier to navigate while still retaining all the hard work that librarians put into describing and typing out the information about every single item in the collection.

More typical are finding aids that enumerate collections at a higher level – by folder or by box. This gives you a sense of what might be in each folder or box, but at a much less detailed level. Other, very large collections, like those administered by the National Archives, do not bother describing collections at anything lower than the series or record group level. Series or record groups are larger divisions of a collection and can described hundreds or even thousands of boxes as a part of an even larger collection.

Of course, even with a small collection, a 4 or 5 or 20 page list of folder titles can be a bit overwhelming, not to mention not particularly helpful. This is where series and other hierarchical groupings come in handy. In a collection of family papers at work, for example, I used series to group documents and other items by family member responsible for them. Similarly, in a collection of records from a business or organization, series might take the form of different departments or job functions.

In my opinion, though, those are the straightforward parts of a finding aid, the parts you would probably be able to understand just by looking at it. The more complicated, jargon-y information comes at the front of the document, and is often ignored when we (as researchers) want to get down to the good stuff to see if there is anything of relevance in the container listing. The front matter that sometimes gets skipped, though, can provide helpful background information (Biographical and Historical sotes) and a sense of what level of description you can expect to see in the container listing as well as what kinds of materials are in the collection (Scope and Content notes). It can also give you information about how a collection made it to the institution in which it resides (Accession or Acquisition notes), details about the processing history of the collection (Processing note), the subject headings used to describe the collection in the online library catalog (Indexing Terms, Access Points, or Descriptive Terms) and sometimes even suggestions for related collections that might be worth checking out (Related Materials note). Not all finding aids contain all this information, but just checking out finding aids on a site like the Online Archive of California (just redesigned and now prettier than before!) or Harvard University’s OASIS catalog can give you a good sense of what kind of information may reside in the front matter of a finding aid and how much variation there can be within them.

Understanding finding aids isn’t just for archival research though. Indeed, I think there are some helpful ideas to be taken from them and applied to the description of personal archives of family history material, too. We all have papers and photographs that need to be organized, and there are lots of books and guides and websites about organizing research resources and products into binders or filing cabinets or digital files -- but these organizational solutions leave historical materials a bit out in the cold.

Before I went to library school, I used to file newspaper clippings, old letters and sometimes a photograph or two in sheet protectors in my series of binders alongside census printouts and birth certificates, because I didn’t really know what else to do with them. Thinking more about the nature of archival collections, though, made me realize that these materials could and should be curated in a completely different way – not just as source material, but also as artifacts.

At some point a few years ago, then, I put together a sort of finding aid of the papers I’d inherited from my mother’s parents, using the information I’d learned about things like series, about putting things in folders, about managing archival collections in formal repositories. Just as it would in an institution where I might be doing research, the finding aid to my grandparents’ papers is a way for me to wrap my head around what materials I have to work with, without my having to pull them out and flip through them.

It gives me an intellectual control over these items that I wouldn’t have if I hadn’t purposely sat down to catalog them and document their contents. Sure, I would still have some sort of idea of what these documents were if I hadn’t written up a container list for them, but it would be just that – an idea – as opposed to a collection under my control as the collector and as the archivist.

In a library or an archive, you catalog things so that people can find them. You catalog things and describe them in finding aids so that you know what you have, and researchers will know what you have. Cataloging your personal archive of materials, creating lists and guides to them, will help you to know what you have.

Copyright © Rebecca Fenning


Blogger Family Curator said...

Thank you for another terrific article, Rebecca. Your overview of finding aids is so helpful for family historians and "caretakers of the stuff." I'm inspired to have another look at my own collection.

June 21, 2009 at 10:31 AM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Thanks, Denise!

June 21, 2009 at 10:18 PM  
Blogger Deb said...

This is a great article. I am headed for grad school and a degree in digital preservation/archiving, and am collecting all sorts of articles and info. I am creating a spreadsheet of the 3D family heirlooms for which I am the caretaker, with any known info about provenance, associated stories, photographs of the item, and photographs of the people associated with the item. That way, future generations can enjoy all of the items even if they have only some of them in their own possession; and everyone knows what is a family heirloom vs. something I picked up at an estate sale, in the event something happens to me and all my "stuff" must be dealt with. I am in the process of archivally scanning and storing hundreds of old photos so I can both restore them and share them; continuing work on my genealogy; and digitizing hundreds of old cards, letters, documents, postcards, Bible pages, land records, estate records, vital records, etc. for both safekeeping and for sharing. I will need to create finding aids at some point for the various branches of my family, once I am at the point of getting everything online - and your article is great info! Thanks ~

July 7, 2010 at 6:48 PM  

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