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HCC Archives: Reading a Finding Aid

How to Read a Finding Aid

Finding aids are useful tools in the archives world because it allows researchers to learn what resources are included in a collection without having to go through each item in the collection. However, for someone unfamiliar with using finding aids, they can be difficult to understand. This page will break down the different sections of a finding aid to help you better utilize them in your research. 

Summary Information

This first part of a finding aid provides background information about the collection. Some of the sections describe the collection itself, while others describe more archival aspects of the collection. Some of the major sections are described below:

Collection Number: The specific number assigned to a collection that can be used to identify the collection within the archives. 

Title: Official title of the collection, displayed at the top of the finding aid. 

Repository: Information about the institution that houses this collection. 

Creator: The name, if known, of the creator of the collection. This can be the author, photographer, or the person who originally organized the materials. 

Date: The date range of the collection. Sometimes will include the full span of dates as well as a Bulk Date which shows what time period most of the materials are from. 

Extent: This indicates how large a collection is. It is often displayed in Linear Feet, which is an archival method of measuring how much shelf space a collection uses. 

Language: This section will describe what language(s) a collection is written or spoken in. 

Processing Information: This section provides the name(s) of the archivist(s) who worked to process the collection.

Example Summary Information Section:

Collection Number: 2019-04
Title: Office of Public Information and Government Relations Collection
Repository: William M. Brish Library Archives, Hagerstown Community College. 11400 Robinwood Drive Hagerstown, MD 21742. (240)-500-2237
Creator: Office of Public Information and Government Relations
Date: 1946-2017, bulk: 1970-1986
Extent: 33.76 Linear Feet (15 archival boxes)
Language: Materials entirely in English
Processing Information: Finding aid written by Sarah Conrad, May 24, 2019. Processed by Sarah Conrad, 2019.


The History section of a finding aid is where you will find the history of the organization, or biography of the person or family that the collection is about. This section can be very useful for understanding the context of the collection's materials and provides excellent background information. 

Example of the History section of a finding aid

The Office of Public Information & Government Relations (PIGR) is the department on campus responsible for all college promotional and marketing materials. It is responsible for creating the academic catalogs, course guides and schedules, and other college publications. Materials created by the PIGR office include both print and digital materials. They are also responsible for the operation of the college’s website, social media presence and acts as the gatekeeper for releasing information to the media. The current director of the PIGR office is Beth Kirkpatrick. As of July 1, 2019, the PIGR office has been renamed “Public Relations and Marketing.”

Scope and Content Note

The Scope and Content Note section includes valuable information about what materials will be found in the collection and how they will be arranged. Often, collections will be arranged into Series and Sub-Series that help arrange materials by similar use or subjects. These series help researchers better utilize the collection's materials. 


Example of Scope and Content Note section

This collection includes a large number of black and white, and color photographs, VHS and DVCam recordings, newspaper clippings, brochures, publications, course schedules and catalogs, and press releases. Also found in this collection are meeting minutes and committee papers. Materials range from 1946-2017.

This collection will be arranged into four main series: Publications, Programming, Administrative, and Audio/Visual. The majority of this arrangement is proposed by the processing archivist since most of the collection was transferred with no discernable organization. Any previous amounts of arrangement will be maintained.

The first series, Publications, will be divided into two sub-series: Campus Publications, and Press Publications. This series contains all publications created by HCC or regarding HCC. Materials include: newspapers and clippings, campus directories, catalogs, course schedules, press releases, maps, books, and interview transcripts. Materials within each sub-series will be arranged topically and chronologically.

Citations and Use

Every finding aid will have a preferred style of citation that you are requested to use. Just like anytime you use a source for a research paper and have to provide a citation, anytime you use materials from the archives you need to cite your sources. 

This section also describes if there are any restrictions with using the collection. This could mean some items are not open for use because of sensitive information or the materials are too fragile. 

Example of Citation for Specific Collection

Office of Public Information & Government Relations Collection, Box [#], Folder [#], William M. Brish Archives, Hagerstown Community College.

Box Lists

This is one of the most useful parts of a finding aid. The Box List section provides a list of materials that are in the collection. Most finding aids do not provide an item by item list, but instead describe materials by the folders found in each box. Each folder has a title that describes the materials in that folder, and each folder is numbered within each box. Often finding aids will also show where each series or sub-series starts in the boxes, to make it easier for researchers to find items in each series.

When requesting items from a collection, it is helpful to know what box and folder number you would like to look at, especially if the collection is very large. 

Example Box List

Box 1:

Series I: Publications:

Sub-series I: Campus Publications:

1. College Directories: 1946-1988
2. Pages from "Teaching in Washington County: 1950-1956"
3. Faculty Handbook: September 1966
4. Faculty Handbook: 1967-1968
5. HJC Logo: 1970
6. Washington County Brochure: 1971
7. Advanced Technology Center: 1987-1990
8. Hagerstown Community College Brochure: 2002
9. Campus Publications: General Information
10. Campus Brochures
11. Discover Your Future HCC Brochure
12. Robinwood Center
13. Athletic, Recreation & community Center
15. HJC Campus Map
16. Crisis Management Plan
17. Colloquium Reviews: 1985-1987
18. War and Peace: Colloquium Review: 1998
19. Genetics Revolution: Colloquium Review: Spring 1999
20. Beyond Reengineering: Colloquium Review: Spring 2000

Box 2

1. Campus Cookery Circa 1970s
2. XYST: 1969
3. XYST: 1973
4. XYST: 1974
5. XYST: 1978
6. XYST: 1979
7. XYST: 1984
XYST Memo 1/17/1985

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