International Roots of the Civil Rights Movement: Finding Aids

Guide to navigating archives, which will be used as part of Union Theological Seminary class CE315 taught by Sarah Azaransky

What is a Finding Aid?

A "finding aid" is what researchers use to discover more information about what is located within archival collections. This tool facilitates discovery of information within the collections. It also allows the repository to understand the physical and intellectual dimensions of a collection so that we can better assist researchers with their access.

Finding aids are single documents that place the materials in context by consolidating information about the collection, such as acquisition and processing; provenance, including administrative history or biographical note; scope of the collection, including size, subjects, media; organization and arrangement; and an inventory of the series and the folders.

It is also important to understand that archivists typically are not there to do the research for you, but rather to provide access to collections and help you locate and understand the material. It is up to you to analyze and interpret it!

Reading a Finding Aid

Finding aids are created by many archives that are from a variety of people and institutions, however we follow a set of standards when describing these collections.

What are some typical sections you would see in a finding aid?




This section is typically on the first page of the finding aid. It will give brief information such as who created the collection, who wrote the finding aid, where the materials are located, and a short abstract about the person or organization.



Again near the beginning of the finding aid, the Administrative Information is an important part of any finding aid. It will tell you the history of how the collection came to be at the institution; any restrictions in access; and finally a preferred citation if someone was to use the material in a publication or presentation.

The biographical or historical note will tell the patron information on who the person or organization was. It will help the reader understand more fully why there might be certain materials in the collection.




The Scope and Content Note refers specifically to the materials within the collection. Large collections will be broken up into sections, which are called series. Very large or complex collections can be broken up further into subseries. Smaller collections may not need to be broken up into series at all, and the scope and content note will give a general overview of the collection.

Scope and Content Notes are a good place for the archivist to include a few details about what might be in a collection so that people doing keyword searches will locate the finding aid. For example, in a series of correspondence, the archivist would include a line such as:


The bulk of William Walker Rockwell’s extensive correspondence is from 1911-1917. The letters go into detail regarding conditions in Armenia, such as deportations and poor treatment of individuals. Correspondence is from individuals and locations throughout the world, such as Germany and Switzerland. Rockwell also wrote to Ambassadors Henry Morgenthau and Abram I. Elkus, US Ambassadors to Turkey. Many of the documents contain copies of other material not directly related to the ACASR, such as other committees with related goals.

The processing note is another typical section you will see on a finding aid. It will tell you the history of how a collection was processed and potentially reorganized, if it originally contained materials that were taken out of the collection, and where the removed material may have ended up.




The Contents List is potentially the most detailed section of the finding aid. It will tell the patron what is in each series, box and potentially folder. Not all finding aids will go into the folder-level detail; sometimes the material is taken to the box or series level. It depends on the amount of material in the collection as well as the time allotted for the project.


Primary source citation depends on the type of primary source you are using (ex: document, newspaper, etc.) and the style of citation required (ex: Chicago Manual, MLA, APA, etc.). After you have determined the answer to both of these, you can look at the Preferred Citation that is included on every Burke Library (and many other location's) finding aids. The National Archives website has an extensive guide to citing primary sources.