How to use a finding aid

General Information About Finding Aids

While searching for information, researchers may come across a “finding aid” for the first time and are not sure how to use this document.

Finding aids are guides written by archivists to describe collections of archival materials. They are usually constructed into two main parts: the “front matter” and the container list. They contain standard fields of information to document the contextual evidence of the material’s creation, acquisition, and arrangement; along with box and folder lists to help aid in the retrieval of its contents.

Finding aids can be found through searching CLIO, the Columbia University online catalog. Much of the “front matter” is seen in the collection-level CLIO record, but finding aids contain much more detail, helping to locate that “needle in the haystack.”

Collection-Level Records in CLIO

The following catalog fields (aka access points) are found in the archival collection-level record:

  • Creator: The creator or compiler of the collection. Often contains material authored by others and sent or collected by the creator.
  • Title: Full title of the collection, records, papers, etc.
  • Date: Span of dates for the entire collection. “Bulk” dates indicate the majority of the materials.
  • Physical Description: The size of the collection is usually measured in feet and number of containers.
  • Arrangement: The intellectual and/or physical organization of the materials, often broken into subunits called “series” and “subseries,” These units usually reflect record-creating activities, groups, or genres.
  • Biographical/Historical Note: Background of creator.
  • Scope and Content Note: Summary of the materials, such as the functions, activities, and media formats.
  • Access: Information regarding legal or policy restrictions on the use of the materials.
  • Provenance/Acquisition: Information regarding how and from whom the library acquired the item.

Here is an example of a collection-level record -- the Leonard C. Harber papers – as found in CLIO:

Leonard C. Harber papers bibliographic record in CLIO, Columbia Libraries Catalog
Leonard C. Harber papers bibliographic record in CLIO, Columbia Libraries Catalog

While CLIO offers a snapshot description of the collection, it may lack details for specific items found within the collection. For more detailed information about the contents of the collection, choose the link “finding aid” in the holdings box.

Using Health Sciences Library Finding Aids

Selecting the link to the Finding Aid will direct the researcher to the Health Sciences Library’s Archives & Special Collections division. From this webpage, there is a link to the full PDF finding aid. This document will contain more fields along with a container list.

The finding aid will likely have more in-depth histories and descriptions of the activities documented in the collection, along with media formats in the “series” and “subseries” components. There may be notes regarding the processing and custodial history of the collection, additional formats available (e.g. digitized), separated materials, and other related collections. This information provides context for how the materials were created, acquired by the library, and processed by the archivist—all which help the researcher determine if the collection contains relevant information for their research.

Leonard C. Harber Papers finding aid

When trying to locate items in a collection, researchers refer to the container list. It is important to know that container lists usually describe materials at the box or folder-level, not the item-level. The level of arrangement for a collection should be noted in the “Arrangement” field and/or the series and other component descriptions.

Once the researcher knows which containers to consult, they can begin their research. These boxes and folders refer to physical containers that must be requested in person or remotely by staff.

For example, if you are searching for images of dermatologists in the 1970s, you should first consult Series III: Photographs, 1953-2004; and more specifically:

Box 4 outlined in red: Leonard Harber and others (black-and-white), circa 1960s-1970s

Detail from Leonard C. Harber Papers finding aid
Detail from Leonard C. Harber Papers finding aid

Interactive Finding Aids

The previous example is a static pdf document, but many finding aids have more sophisticated searching and navigation features, such as those found on the Empire State Archival Discovery Cooperative or Columbia University Libraries Archives Portal. Institutions may also link digital objects within their finding aids, as seen with the Carnegie Corporation of New York and here.

Archives & Special Collections has begun adding finding aids to the Empire State Archival Discovery Cooperative, which allows searches within finding aids from collections in multiple repositories throughout New York. The encoding of the finding aids allows for searches down to the container list, as opposed to CLIO searches. Like the aforementioned sites, the finding aids have the same structure but vary in how the user navigates within.

Leonard C. Harber papers finding aid, Empire Archival Discovery Cooperative
Leonard C. Harber papers finding aid, Empire Archival Discovery Cooperative which allows researchers to search all contents within the finding aid.
Navigating the Harber papers container list
Navigating the Harber papers container list, Empire Archival Discovry Cooperative