The Archivist’s Nook: Finding Your Way Around the Collections

Collection of Joseph Novak, former Met set designer
Woe unto the researcher who braves the collections alone. (Collection of Joseph Novak, former Met set designer)

The Archives houses over 500 individual collections, from personal papers to institutional records, totaling nearly 14,000 feet of records and manuscripts. You may be asking yourself, “How in the world can anyone hope to find what they are looking for in such a vastness?” You may even be awestruck when an archivist is able to quickly locate an item. Are archivists wizards? Do we spend too much time with the collections? While the answer to both questions may be “yes,” the truth is that we have a trusty means to locate a needle in the stacks. We have finding aids.

But what is a finding aid and how does one use it? Simply put, a finding aid is a detailed description on what is contained in a collection. It is an inventory of all the materials residing in any given collection, with supplemental information about the collection’s history and nature of its organization. It may be lengthy and meticulous in its descriptions or terse and blunt. It may even offer links to digital copies of the collection.

Thus, if you are looking for basic information on the collection or a roadmap on how to navigate through the materials, a finding aid should be your first stop. Not only is it a helpful guide while braving the dark corridors of the research process, but with historical/biographical notes and bibliographies included, it may also provide supplemental context for your research. Sections such as “restrictions” and “administrative information” may even warn you of any problems that may emerge while using the collection, such as limitations on copying or missing materials. (It can also reveal some of the process that occurred behind the scenes to organize and ready a collection for access.)

But if you are looking for more than references, the finding aid’s core is the “detailed description of contents” section. Depending upon the size and nature of the collection, this section may be organized in a variety of ways, but it will almost always be divided up into series. These series can vary widely, but some of the more common categories are: correspondence; photographs; publications; or subject files. These categories are usually organized alphabetically or chronologically, depending upon the nature and quantity of the material. No matter how they may be specifically organized, the series and the information contained in them can serve as guide markers to help navigate even the most complicated of collections.

Treasure Chest of Fun & Facts
Who knows what treasures you can uncover in the stacks?

For example, if you are looking for information related to Simon Alexander Baldus and his correspondence with James Walsh during the First World War, you can quickly find such letters by turning to the finding aid. Looking at it, you can see that Series 1 is “Correspondence,” and is organized alphabetically. “Walsh, James” being listed with accompanying years – 1909-1916 – within Box 2, Folder 30. Instead of scouring through potentially hundreds of letters or all three boxes, you can narrow your search and find what you need as quickly as possible.

While not every collection has an online finding aid, the archives staff is well prepared to assist in locating what you may require. In addition to in-house, unpublished inventories, we also have reference files and a familiarity with the collections that allows us to serve as guides for researchers. However, what both finding aids and our staff cannot do is provide you with the exact answers or full details for any given document or collection. Both serve as maps to help you pinpoint what you are looking for, but you will have to dig through the materials yourself to uncover what treasures (or monsters) lie in wait.

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