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Home > Help > Primary Source Research Guide > Definitions > Finding aids > Anatomy

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Primary Source Research Guide
- Introduction
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- Primary and Secondary Sources
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- Finding Aids
> Anatomy of a Finding Aid
Finding Primary Sources
- Resources
- Digital Collections
- Collections on Microfilm
Visiting Repositories
- Preparing for Your Visit
- What To Expect
- Links and Contact Information
Use and Reproduction
- Copyright
- Citing Sources

Anatomy of a Finding Aid

Finding aids will contain some or all of the following parts:

Collection Overview

A brief introduction to the collection, this section is designed to provide enough information for evaluating the relevance of the collection to your research interests. It contains the following:


The person, family, or organization who created or compiled the materials. Birth and death dates for individuals may be included.


The title may include the creator's name, and will always include the range of dates encompassed in the collection. In the title, the term "Papers" indicates that it is the collection of an individual or family, "Records" indicates that the collection was created by an organization.


The quantity, or extent, of the materials is given as the number of containers and/or linear footage of materials. Understanding the amount of materials being described is useful in planning research visits.

Collection Number

The collection number is a method for identifying a particular collection.


The institution, city, and state where the collection is housed - the place to contact with reference inquiries.


A brief description of the collection and its creator, including people, subjects, and types of materials represented in the materials.

Terms of Access and Use

Any restrictions on viewing the materials will be noted here. More detail on the use of the collection can be found under "Information on Use."

Biographical or Historical Note

Information about the person, family, or organization that created the collection, in narrative and/or chronological format. This section will cover major activities and events and highlight areas important to understanding the collection.

Scope and Contents of the Collection

A narrative description of the materials as a whole. Indicates the types of materials present, arrangement of the records, and dates covered. The scope and contents note will also highlight major topics, events, people, and places documented in the records.

Series Descriptions

A series is a unit of records that has been grouped together based on a common function or format, or because of a relationship arising from their creation or use. In a finding aid, the series descriptions contain the title, dates of coverage, and a brief description of the contents of each series. Series descriptions may also include the range of containers, a statement of the type of arrangement, and a note on any restrictions for each series.

Contents List

A detailed listing of the folders, volumes, or other file units found in the collection. Includes the box or box and folder number, title of the file, and often the date range.

Information on Use

Terms of Access and Use

Notes regarding restrictions on access to or use of all or part of the collection. Indicates any special conditions regarding reproduction, publication, or quotation of the materials. Often includes information about copyright.

Preferred Citation

Proper form to be used when citing the collection.

Additional Formats

Indicates that copies of the materials exist in another form (i.e. microfilm, digital images).

Additions to the Collection

Gives information on expected accruals to the collection, if any.

History of the Collection

Information about the history of ownership, acquisition, and processing of the materials.

Search Terms

Topics, personal and corporate names, and geographic areas that have been assigned to the collection to enhance searching capabilities.

Additional Information

May contain notes about related material found within or outside of the archives, other finding aids that may be available internally, or bibliographies citing works relevant to the collection.

Unique Sections

Archival collections are one of a kind, and may require unique descriptive information to help researchers using the materials. Examples of other sections that may be found in these finding aids include indexes, bibliographies, and summaries of correspondence.

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Project funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Last update: May 24, 2004