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Introduction to Archival Research

An introductory overview of archival research at the Kellen Design Archives and other archives.

What's a finding aid?

In the catalog record, you may see a note about something called a finding aid. A finding aid is a detailed document prepared by archivists that informs researchers about a collection. It provides more information than a catalog record and tells you what you can expect to encounter if you choose to conduct research in a collection.

The finding aid gives researchers an understanding of

  • who created the records,
  • why they were created,
  • how they were created, and
  • how they are organized.
  • The finding aid discusses the group of records as a whole. 
  • A finding aid is a very useful tool to help you figure out if a collection has materials in it that might be relevant to your research question, and where in the collection those materials might be.

It’s very important to read the finding aid before you go to the archives.

Some finding aids are available on the Internet. Many are not. However, you can contact an archives and ask the archivist to send you the finding aid. After reading the finding aid, you will have a better sense of whether or not you want to visit the archives to conduct research.



Interpreting the Record

So, you've found a catalog record for an archival collection in Bobcat, WorldCat, or some other catalog. What information do you need to get out of that record in order to move to the next step in your research?

1. Collection Title: Archival collections are groups of records created or collected by a person or an organization, and therefore are often titled according to the name of the person or organization rather than subject matter. The title may not reveal the subject matter of the collection, but it will appear elsewhere in the catalog record.

You may also see the word papers following a name. This is an archival term. While papers may contain paper records, it is used to refer to all the materials -- regardless of format -- created or received by an individual.

2. Dates: The dates following the title are a span of years in which the materials in the collection were created. They are NOT the birth and death dates of the person or organization in the collection title. The dates can tell you whether or not the collection will be useful for your research if you are investigating a particular era or timespan.

3. Extent: This is a measurement telling you the size of the collection. Sometimes it is expressed as linear feet, or the number of individual items. It may tell you how many boxes or tubes of material are holding the collection.

Why do you need to know this? It will help you budget your time. If you discover a collection that is 32 linear feet, you know it will take more than a day to examine it thoroughly. On the other hand, if it is only one scrapbook, you may be able to complete your research in one afternoon. Nevertheless, it is always vital to leave extra time when conducting archival research.

4. Summary/Abstract/Description: This is a brief overview of the collection. It often contains a biography or history of one or two sentences about the people or organizations connected to the collection, the activities documented by the materials, and a statement about the types of formats a researcher will encounter when using the collection. This is where you will read about the subject matter of a collection.