Searching in the Archives: Finding Aids

Searching in the Archives: Finding Aids

Blog post by Rusty
Wednesday, May 24, 2017

By Sammy Cook

We are often making fun discoveries as we process Archival Collections at the Austin History Center. Discoveries that we love to share with you. (Just check out “The Consequences of Saying ‘I do’,and Love from the Archives as a couple of examples.) But what we love even more is empowering you to make important discoveries of your own. While you may enjoy the finds we share, your curiosity likely encompasses something else entirely. Perhaps you ponder about your property?  Maybe your interest lies in the suffrage movement? Or exploration of early photographs of Austin is more your style? Remember the conversion of Bergstrom from an Air Force Base to a Municipal Airport or the poisoning of the Treaty Oak? Oakwood Cemetery has always been fascinating to you you say? The examples are countless and definitely include the question that has been hanging around in the back of your mind. But exploring the archives for yourself can be intimidating if you’ve never done so before. Well we’ve created a number of resources designed specifically to help you access these records. If you want to find the answers to your questions the best place to start is with our Finding Aids. Finding Aids are a resource built to help you understand what is in our different archival collections. While intended to provide access and simplify the process for figuring out what is part of a collection, without some background they can be complex and hard to read. In the most rudimentary sense a finding aid is basically a list identifying the parts of a collection. But they are a trove of information beyond this.

Finding Aid Example

Broken down, finding aids have ten separate parts that include an overview of the collection, biographical notes, and a list of the contents in the collection. These different parts  can be just as helpful to you as the content list. You can access all of our current finding aids on the Texas Archival Resources Online. We have other older finding aids that can be found in our reading room, but those often contain a very limited amount of information. We are always working to process our archival collections to create new finding aids that contain this extensive amount of information. To browse the entire holdings of our collections and see what finding aids might be awaiting you here check out our Archives Index.

The Finding aids are broken down into ten sections, each of them containing unique pieces of information that will help you determine if this is the collection you need to see. 

  • Overview of the Collection: contains basic information like size, name, and a brief abstract. Next comes the
  • Biographical/Organizational Note, Scope and Content, and Arrangement: These sections contain the most information about the people, groups, and collection of materials. They tell the story of the people involved in the collection and provide an overview of the materials in the collection. After the Arrangement section comes
  • Restrictions: These can be extremely important for researchers. At the Austin History Center we receive the majority of our collections through donations. Sometimes donors put restrictions on their collections, like that they maintain copyright of the materials or you cannot photocopy certain documents, etcetera… and that information is listed in this section. The
  • Index Terms and Related Material: are a great source of information. Whether it is other materials related to a person or subject that you are interested in, or subject terms to use in searching, these sections can be extremely helpful. Lastly, is the
  • Detailed Description of the Collection: is last and is the list of all of the folders and sometimes, like in the case of the Pease, Graham, and Niles Families Papers, item lists of what is in the collection. This is where the list description from above come into play as they are listed in the order they appear in the box.

While finding aids can be complex, they are also great resources to begin to dive into the many different collections we have here at the Austin History Center. They can help you identify specifically whether an individual you are looking for has materials in the collection or exactly what box and folder the materials you are looking for are located in.

Finding Aid Example: Identification Number

Now that you know how to use a Finding Aid and have determined which boxes you want to see from a collection what do you do? Well if you are in the Austin area, come into the Austin History Center with the Identification Number of the collection and the box number. We will issue you a call slip and pull the materials for you. If you are unable to come in to see us but want to see the items in a specific folder you can take advantage of our reference services. You can find more information about these services here.

In addition to our finding aids we have some other great resources, like our Austin Files List, Archives and Manuscripts Index, and our general library catalog, which can be found at the top right of every page on our website. These resources can help you access the other types of materials we have in our collections that are not detailed in finding aids or not archival collection materials. We’ll be sharing more about these access tools soon. In the meantime if you are ready to begin your search start browsing our finding aids today and get in contact with our staff who are always ready to help.