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Friday, October 8, 2010

What are finding aids ???

Well, October is American Archives Month and the Smithsonian archivists are sharing “insider tips” about our collective varied and rich archival resources. I’d like to share a little archival jargon today. To the archivists reading this blog, you know what a finding aid is, right? But, do our users?

The Collections Search Center references nearly 285,000 Archival Materials! Users have the option of browsing finding aids under the online media tab. When browsing by type of archival material, such as collection descriptions, users also find links to archival finding aids.

So what are finding aids and why do archivists create them?

Archivists measure their holdings in linear or cubic feet. Why? Because most larger archival repositories hold millions of items found within thousands of archival collections and these collections are not only often large, but also difficult to navigate and understand without the personal assistance of an archivist or the aid of detailed description. Thus, we create finding aids to provide full access to our collections.

Finding aids provide users of archival materials information about the creation, scope, and content of the collection, as well as any necessary information about using and accessing the collection. They often include a detailed container and folder listing of the contents of the collection. Larger archival collections can be complex, with many different “relationships” found among groups of materials within the collection. For example, a set of diaries within a collection could be extremely informative and detailed, but when also viewed with personal correspondence found within the same collection, the information within the diaries is further enriched and enhanced. Finding aids often assist users in making these connections. They also typically enhance discovery by uncovering hidden resources within the collection, such as treasure items or little known relationships and historical information.

Here is an online finding aid to the Charles Lang Freer papers in the Freer Sackler Gallery Archives.

Many of the Smithsonian's archival units have online finding aids available on their websites from links on the Collections Search Center. Some of the finding aids also contain links to digital content as well, and some offer access to fully digitized collections, such as the ones available on the Archives of American Art's Collections Online site.

So, during American Archives Month, why not check out a few finding aids? You may be surprised what riches you'll find!

Barbara Aikens
Chief, Collections Processing
Archives of American Art

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