The Southwest Collection/Special Collections Library makes thousands of archival collections available to researchers. And for each of those collections, we prepare a “finding aid” that describes a collection’s contents and context. Yet many visiting researchers are unaware of what finding aids are, and how they can help navigate our often massive collections. Are you one such? Fear not! This month’s blog is going to get you up to speed.
Perhaps the most useful part of an archival collection’s finding aid is its inventory. It’s more than a simple list of the collection’s contents, however. Collections need to have some measure of intellectual organization, so they are organized first by archival “series”—an overarching category under which some materials are gathered. These could be simply “Correspondence,” “Newspapers,” “Legal Materials,” or “Photographs,” or something more specific to the collection, such as names of individuals, organizations, or broad topics to which much of the collection applies, such as “Art and Artists” in the image above. The contents within the boxes that house a collection boxes reflect this same organization, as does the inventory.
While an inventory is essential finding the box and folder of materials that a researcher would like to look through, an archivist’s job is to provide the context in which those items exist. A handwritten letter by itself is little more than a novelty, but a letter accompanied by biographical information and descriptions of the collection’s overarching themes and topics? That has real research value.
A Biographical Statement might entail a description of the collection’s donor, the person who put the records together before donating them, or, most often, the individuals or organizations that the collection documents. With that information, researchers can make sense of who wrote the letter, and to whom, and with some lucky, why they wrote it! The Scope and Content statement gives an idea of the types of items in a collection, and what they, as a whole, are trying to describe. In the image above, the Biography briefly outlines the Holden family’s careers, publications, research interests, and personal lives. Scope & Content repeat that to an extent, but focus on the wide variety of materials in the collection that reflect that. The presence of many of the items in the collection (such as the many Ranching Heritage Center records) make sense only when this information is known.
Finding aids contain other information essential to research process, albeit in more practical ways. For example, knowing the number of boxes in a collection can help a researcher plan their visit to our Reading Room. Some collections consist of more than 100 boxes to look through; researchers have to be selective if they are pressed for time. Similarly, the finding aid lists other archival collections that cover related topics, as well as oral histories or other resources that a researcher may want to consult during their project. And of course, if someone uses a collection, then they have to cite it appropriately when they use it when writing their paper or book. Therefore there’s even a line that suggests the best format for doing so.
And that’s a finding aid! The Southwest Collection and a host of other Texas archives and libraries post these on Texas Archival Resources Online (TARO). But remember, our ever-helpful Reference Staff is also available to walk you through this, and to get the collections into your hands.