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Course & Subject Guides

A Guide to Primary Sources at the Archives Service Center: Reading a Finding Aid

Designed to assist researchers who are using the archival collections at the Archives Service Center.

How to Read a Finding Aid

Finding aids are inventories that describe collection contents in greater detail. This page breaks down the essential parts of a finding aid. This will help you interpret the information presented in a finding aid. The sections of a finding aid explained here are broken down into six parts: Summary Information; Scope and Content Notes; History; Subject Terms; Citation; and Collection Inventory.

Summary Information

This part of finding aid states the collection title, collection number, and dates of the material. The extent will tell you how large a collection is and if it would be large enough to use for the seminar paper. The Abstract gives a brief description of what you can expect to find in the collection. The publisher lets you know that this collection is housed at the Archives Service Center. When you request a collection at the ASC reference desk, you'll need to know the full collection title and the collection number (collection numbers are like call numbers on a book).


The history section of the finding aid will have a biography on either, the person or family (if it a collection of personal papers) or history of the organization.This section will help you to understand the context in which these records were created and sometime provide important background information.

Scope and Content Notes

The scope and content notes in a finding aid will describe what will be found in the collection. It will tell you the type of material (example- annual reports, correspondence, blueprints, etc.). It may also tell you what not to expect to find in a collection. This finding aid for the Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Records, which specifically states that it does not have records on the Fallingwater Estate.

Subject Terms

Subject terms are words used to describe the collection. You may find it useful to use subject terms when searching for additional collections relevant to your topic.

Citation- Citing the Collection

Every finding aid will also have a preferred citation that is the basic information needed for a citation. For a further guide on citing documents please see the Citation Guide found in the ASC Info tab.

Collection Inventory

Archives collections are not indexed item by item, but rather by folders. These folders may have only a few documents or contain many and be very thick! The folder title will describe the subject of all the documents found in that folder. At the end of the finding aid they will be a section that lists the title of each folder and the box it is found in. This information will help you identify folders within collections that you'll want to review at the ASC. You will also need to know which box numbers and folder number when requesting collections at the ASC reference desk.