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Finding Aids 101

This guide will explore how to find archival items within our collections using our Finding Aids Database, and explore the components of a finding aid.

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Chloe Gerson
Chloe Gerson, Reference and Instruction Archivist
Robert D. Farber University Archives & Special Collections, Goldfarb Library
Brandeis University
415 South St.
Waltham, MA 02453

What is a finding aid?

A finding aid, as defined by the Society of American Archivists (SAA), is "a tool that facilitates discovery of information within a collection of records"; they contain detailed information about a specific collection and are used by researchers (and archivists!) to determine whether information within a collection is relevant to their research. A finding aid is the intellectual description of a physical collection.

How to use the Finding Aids Database

The finding aids created for collections held at Brandeis University can be viewed on our Finding Aids Database. Our archivists are happy to assist you in navigating the database in person, by phone, or virtually.

Once on the site, you can browse our finding aids by title, subject, or creator. If you browse by title, the next screen will give a complete list of all of our online finding aids for both University Archives and Special Collections. If you browse by subject, the next screen will give a list of subject headings (library of congress and local). If you browse by creator, the next screen will give a list of creators of items within the collections.

You can also use the "search" function and put in your own keywords. If you use the "search" function with your own keywords, the next screen will give a list of collections and items within collections that directly or indirectly include your keyword.

Once you have selected either an item (noted by the page icon) or a collection (noted by the lined box icon), you can review the contents and learn more about the collection.

Components of a finding aid

A finding aid, to be compliant with the most current standards in the archival profession as explored in the most current version of Describing Archives: a Content Standard, must contain these elements:

  • Title of the collection
  • Dates covered within the collection
  • Extent of the collection (the size, either written in terms of number of boxes or length of linear feet)
  • Creator of the collection
  • Scope and Content (an abstract or summary of what is in the collection, often includes formats and highlights)
  • Access/Use conditions and language 

Additionally, there is usually:

  • An Administrative/Biographical history of the creator
  • An arrangement note (this will list the series into which the items have been organized/arranged)

Not all finding aids contain the same level of information. Collections can be described (intellectually) and arranged (physically) at a variety of different levels:

  • Collection level: there only the basic elements of the finding aid to enable discovery
  • Box Level: there is summary information about what is in each box within the collection
  • Series Level: there is summary information about what is in each series
  • Folder Level: there is summary information about what is in each folder
  • Item Level: each item in the collection is described individually



How to request an item for use

Materials held at University Archives and Special Collections can only be used in our Reading Room. The Reading Room is located on Level 2 of the Goldfarb Library, directly below the Information and Borrowing Desk on Level 1. The Reading Room is open to researchers from the Brandeis community and beyond Monday-Friday from 10-4, closed weekends and major holidays. 

You are not required to make an appointment to work in the Reading Room, but appointments are recommended because our Reading Room also serves as our instruction and exhibit space. When an instruction session or exhibit is underway, we will not be able to accommodate your visit at the same time. We also recommend appointments because not all of our collections are held onsite and may need to be ordered from our storage facility (requested items will arrive onsite within a week of being ordered).

To request materials for research, please contact the department ( / 781-736-4657). If you are unsure of which boxes you would like to request from our collections, our archivists are happy to help you!

For more information about the department, please visit our website.