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Finding, Researching, and Using Primary Resources

How Primary Resources are Cataloged

Finding Aids, in very over simplified terms are the Archive/Special Collection equivalent of a catalog entry for a specific section of records.  Each Finding Aid has a summary of materials that can be found within the collection, how the institution has processed the collection, how the collections, restrictions, and indexes were acquired.  The information presented is standardized and structured.  The data, summaries, and key terms selected are manually generated by the Archivists or Special Collections Librarians.  They describe a series of documents; rarely do Finding Aids describe a single document.

Collections are the overarching theme or origin of an entire record set provided by a donor or an organization.  They are organized by the highest creator group and given a generalized summary of all materials contained.  These records are then sub-divided into more specific record sets or creators’ groups called “series”.  These are a series of records that share a similar function, related subjects, or format specific record (i.e. maps, photographs, recordings).

Finding Aid


 Finding Aid can be divided into two sections:

  1.  Front Matter.  Front matter is where the summary that describes the entire collection is located. This is also where key information need to create your Citation  such as Title, Identifyee Number
  2.  Inventory.   This section provides an detail outline that identifies the series, boxes, folders, and items within the collection

Understanding Extent

Extent is a method to convey the number of records associated with a given collection. Since historical materials can come in variety of forms such as documents, videos, audio recordings. The way Archivists will describe the amount in Finding Aids will variety. Understanding the extent of the collection can help you anticipate how much material to request or how much time you will need in order to review all the materials that you have requested. Below are the common methods:

Linear feet - is the most common measure of archival material used.  It tells the archivist much physical shelf space is needed for a collection.   For every 0.42 linear feet equal to about 700-800 pages.

Digital Amounts- Digital Born Materials are measured in units of bytes.  A gigabyte of data is equal to 678,000 pages of text.  Whereas 1 gigabyte of audio is the equivalent to 30 minutes of recordings. 

Items- This method tells you how quantity of a format.  For example they might tell you that there's 20 audio recordings, but that does not convey how much time it will take you to listen to a given audio recording.