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How to understand an archival collection finding aid

Introduction - What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid is a written description of archival materials. Finding aids are tools that allow researchers discover the information within a collection of records. They give the repository physical and intellectual control over the materials and consolidate information about the collection, like location, provenance, organizational history, subject matter, content, size, formats of materials, and other administrative information.

Archives all around the world utilize a standard for organizing their finding aids and collections. This standard is called "Describing Archives: A Content Standard," also known as DACS (pronounced "Dacks"). Below are some components of the DACS requirements researchers will find when reading a finding aid. 

Central Piedmont Archives Database

Contents of a Finding Aid

Administrative History/Biographical Note

This section provides brief background information on the person or organization responsible for creating the archival collection in use. This section will provide context for the description of the collection that follows. This is not a comprehensive biography or history; it is meant to provide the researcher with a ready reference to the creator’s activities so that the information in the rest of the finding aid will have greater meaning.


This section provides a general overview of how the collection is arranged (Fonds, series, sub-series, etc.). This section is not to be confused with the "Container List" (also known as "Collection Organization").

Container List (or Collection Organization)

This is the formal listing of the entire collection's contents, from fonds to files. It is in this section where researchers will look for boxes and folders of interest to their research endeavors. When requesting to view files in an archive, you will provide the archivist with the collection identifier/name, the fonds and series of interest, and the boxes/files within the fonds. Please note that most institutions will only allow 1-5 items/boxes to review at a time.

Collection Identifier

Coding system used to alpha-numerically organize the collection (example: AR.0035 - College Publications Collection). This number is similar in nature to a Library of Congress Call Number on a book. 

Collection Title

The name given to the collection (example: College Publications Collection)


This section provides overview of date range(s) of materials within the collection. 


The entire size of the collection, measured in either linear feet or cubic feet (Central Piedmont Archives uses cubic feet). The purpose of this section is to provide the researcher with an understanding of how large or small the collection is. While some collections may take up entire rooms, some collections may only consist of a few items. This section is also important for the archive repository to keep track of how much space their collections utilize. 

Restrictions on Access

This space is used to indicate if the records are restricted due to the nature of the information in the materials. Restrictions are made in the donor agreement, by regulatory statutes, or by Central Piedmont Archives policies. This section applies to restrictions based on content not format.


Scope and Contents

The Scope and Contents section briefly describes the collection’s content; it may also address the distribution and quality of material in the collection. It is in this section that researchers will find a detailed overview of what types of resources are found in this collection (photographs, audio/visual, administrative documentation, etc.), highlighted subject areas, and general size/amount of these resource types.