What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid is a written guide to a collection that describes what is in the collection and how it is arranged, as well as giving context for how, why, and by whom the documents in the collection were created. Finding aids can be helpful tools for researchers in determining whether or not a set of records is relevant to their topic, and can also help them navigate the collection to find the records most likely to be useful for their research. Contents of the collection will be listed at the folder level, as archival documents are generally not cataloged item by item.

The Seattle Municipal Archives' finding aids contain the following elements:

  • Overview of the collection: Similar to a title page for a book, this section contains general information about the collection, including title, creating agency, collection size, dates covered by the materials, collection number, and a very brief summary of the contents.
  • Historical or biographical note: Provides historical information about the creator of the records, usually a City agency. In cases where the records were primarily compiled by a particular person, biographical information will generally be included.
  • Content description: Summarizes the contents of the collection, including types of materials (e.g., letters, reports, photographs) and topics covered (e.g., transportation, Pioneer Square, air pollution).
  • Arrangement: Some finding aids will include explanations of how the records are arranged, and/or listings of subgroups into which the collection has been organized.
  • Administrative information/Use of the collection: These sections may include any restrictions on access to the collection, notes on related materials in other collections, the preferred method of citation for the records, and other administrative notes.
  • Subjects: Much like a library catalog, the SMA's finding aids include subject headings representing topics covered by the records.
  • Detailed description of the collection: The last section of the finding aid will list the contents of the collection, usually at the folder level. A title, date, and box and folder number are provided for each file; noting the box and folder numbers of files you are interested in looking at will help Archives staff retrieve them for you. For larger collections, this section of the finding aid may also include content descriptions of individual series of records.