• Due to renovations to our vault, access to our collections is limited until further notice. Please contact us for more information.

So, what is a finding aid?

Finding aids. If you have never used an archive, you may have never heard this term used in this, or any, context before. Many first-time users of archives are often confused by the term “finding aid,” and then once they read one, they can be confused by the finding aid itself. Even experienced users of archives can be confused by certain finding aids, since finding aids tend to vary between institutions. And I’ll let you in on a secret, at times, they can even confuse archivists.

So, what exactly is a finding aid? A finding aid contains information relating to a specific collection. They are created by archivists and used by researchers to help determine if the material in a collection is relevant to their research. I like to think of a finding aid as a type of descriptive index or table of contents for a collection.

We, and many other archives in the United States, describe our collections using Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). DACS contains a set of rules for describing archival material, which in turn provides consistent description across finding aids. However, even though many archives use DACS, and the components of their finding aids may be similar, the formats may be different between archives. However using this standard tends to cut down the confusion I mentioned above.

In this post, I will describe the information in our (UAA/APU Archives and Special Collections) finding aids. First, I’ll post the template, which we use while describing collections, and include brief explanations with occasional examples for each heading. At the end of the post I will include a sample completed finding aid.

Guide to the [collection name]

Date or date span

Collection number: HMC-####. [Required]

Every collection we receive has its own collection number. “HMC” stands for Historic Manuscript Collection,” and is a left over from when the Archives was founded in the 1980s.

Creator: [creator name or names, last name first.] [Required]

The creator is the person(s) or organization/business that is responsible for the creation or accumulation of the collection. Sometimes we do not know who the creator is so we put “unknown.”

Title: [title]. [Required]

We name collections using the name of the creator, followed by the type of material in the collection. If the collection only contains slides we use the term “slides,” however if the collection contains correspondence, photographs, employment records, and subject files, we use the term “papers.” When it is the collection of an organization or business, we use the term “records.” Examples would be “Lyle Sherman Leseberg photograph albums,” “John Cerutti slides,” “Hans and Margaret Hafemeister papers,” “Rage City Rollergirls records,” and “Greater Anchorage, Inc. Fur Rendezvous records. If we do not know who the creator is, we try using some sort of identification and/or the subject of material. For instance, “Pipeline employee photograph album,” “Unidentified Women’s Reservist photographs,” and “Alaska Highway tourist papers.”

Dates: [date].  or Date: [date]. [Required]

These are the dates of the creation of collection material. If we do not know the date, we will put “undated,” or if we know about the time the material was created, we use “circa.” Sometimes, we have bulk dates. For example, “1885-1989, bulk 1935-1951.” This means that the collection contains some records which are dated prior to 1935 and post 1951, however those dates are outliers in the collection and most of the collection dates between 1935 and 1951.

Volume of collection: [#] cubic feet. [Required]

The physical extent of the collection. Our collections vary in size. They are anywhere from one document in one folder (0.01 cubic feet), to over 100 cubic feet. We’ll also include the size of the electronic records in the collection. An example volume for a collection that includes physical and digital materials would be: “1 cubic foot and 45.3 GB.”

Below are photos of 0.2 cubic feet, 0.4 cubic feet, and 1 cubic foot boxes.

0.2 cubic foot box

0.2 cubic foot box






0.4 cubic foot box

0.4 cubic foot box

1 cubic foot box

1 cubic foot box








Language of materials: [language statement]. [Required]

This informs users the language(s) represented in our collections, even if the collection is solely in English. Example language notes would be “Collection materials are in English, German, and Italian,” “Collection materials are in English,” and “Collection materials are primarily in English, but there are materials in Inupiaq, most having English translations.”

Collection summary: [summary statement]. [Required]

Typically, this is just a brief note (normally a sentence), explaining the general subject of the collection. This same summary appears in the alphabetical listing of collections on our website.

Biographical note: or Organizational history: [Required]

This contains either biographical information or the history of the organization of the person(s) or corporate entity responsible for the creation of the collection. The biographical note usually only contains information that is relevant to the materials in the collection. For example, if we have the papers of a politician which only relate to their political life and career, the biographical note will not go extensively into the politician’s personal life or any other jobs they may have had.

Collection description: [Required]

The collection description, also called the scope and content note, provides information about the materials in the collection. It will contain the subject of the records and type of material.

Arrangement: [arrangement note]. [Required]

This informs users how the collection is intellectually arranged. Many times we keep the collection arranged in the order it arrived. Sometimes the creators arrange the collection in a specific order, and rearrangement could destroy the context of collection materials. Occasionally, collections are rearranged by parts and/or series. If the collection was divided into parts and series, their titles will usually be listed here. We use parts to divide collections by creators if it is the collection of a family or organization. Sometimes we use parts to separate the collection based on when the material was donated to the Archives. One example would be the Betzi and Lyman Woodman papers, which has three parts: Part 1: Betzi Woodman papers; Part 2: Lyman Woodman papers; Part 3: Photographs and slides. Parts one and two are separated by creator, however Part 3 contains material created by both Woodmans.

Another example would be the Charles V. Lucier papers, which has two parts: Part 1: Materials received from Charles Lucier; and Part 2: Materials received from Tiger Burch estate. Charles Lucier donated his papers initially in 1984, with his final addition made in 2002, when Part 1 of the collection was described. Lucier had also sent his colleague and friend Tiger Burch many of his own records. When Burch died, those records were sent to the Archives by the Burch estate in 2009.

Series are groups of like material in a collection, mainly based on subject and/or format type. Sometimes there are also subseries, which are narrower subjects of collection material nested under a series. An example of a collection with series and subseries would be the Ruth A.M. Schmidt papers:

Series 1: Personal papers; 1912-2014
Series 2: Loyalty Hearing Board investigation files; 1938-1955
Series 3: Education and employment records; 1933-1998

Subseries 3a: Applications and work certificates; 1938-1981
Subseries 3b: Military Geology Unit papers; undated, 1945-1958
Subseries 3c: Course notes, field books, and field equipment; 1933-1984
Subseries 3d: Trans-Alaska Inc. records; 1973-1983
Subseries 3e: Teaching materials; 1948-1998
Subseries 3f: International Geological Congress and Prague Spring papers; 1966-1969

Series 4: 1964 earthquake papers; 1964-1989

Alternative formats: [alternative format notes.]

If the collection has the same materials in multiple formats, we note this here. For instance, if there are xerographic copies of photo albums and scrapbooks, or copy prints and/or negatives.

Digitized copies: [Required]

Not all of our collections have digitized copies, but we will always note in the finding aid whether or not they do. If they do, we inform the user if and where they can access the copies. A majority of our digitized copies will be on Alaska’s Digital Archives. For example: “Some photographs from the collection have been digitized and are available online in the Alaska’s Digital Archives (search for Culhane).”

Sometimes we have digitized copies, but they are not available online. An example of this would be the Elaine Schwinge journals. The digitized copies note for this collection reads: “Some documents within the collection have been digitized. For information about obtaining digital copies, please contact Archives and Special Collections.”

If the collection does not have any digitized copies, the note will read: “This collection has not been digitized. For information about obtaining digital copies, please contact Archives and Special Collections.”

Access restrictions: [restrictions note.]

Occasionally we have collections that contain records that have access restrictions, however the reasons can vary. Some collections contain electronic records on obsolete formats, such as zip drives, quadruplex videotapes, or reel-to-reels. This doesn’t mean these are completely restricted, but we may have to send them to be digitized at the user’s expense.

We also have collections that contain fragile documents and journals. In these cases, we digitize them and access may be limited to the digitized item.

We also have items that contain personally identifiable information. While these items can still be accessed by users, they may need to contact us ahead of time so we can redact the material. Or they may be able to access the material, but photography and duplication may be prohibited.

For our anthropology-related collections, we have our users sign a form stating her/his commitment to abide by the American Anthropological Association’s Code of Ethics when using these collections. Our anthropological collections contain physical information about individuals who served as research subjects for studies, as well as other potentially culturally and personally sensitive information.

Digital materials: The digital contents of this collection are not available online. Access may only be provided on-site in the Archives research room. For more information about potential distance access to digital records, please contact Archives and Special Collections.

We use this note to inform users that the collection includes original electronic records, but they are not available online. Users will have to come to the Archives’ Research Room to access these materials.

Technical requirements: [specialized software needed to view materials.]

This informs potential users (and the archivists) if the collection needs specialized software to view materials. Examples would be floppy disk drives or a tape player which the archivists will supply.

Use restrictions: [restrictions note.]

Sometimes we have collections that have certain use restrictions, such as donor-set clauses, or collections that have medical information protected under HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) or personally identifiable information (e.g. social security numbers). We usually inform users what the collection contains that is restricted, and how. One example of a use restriction note, taken from the Jay K. Brause and Gene Dugan papers: “Researchers using the One in Ten project questionnaires may not copy, disseminate, share, or otherwise make use of any personally identifiable information contained within those forms.”

Rights note: [rights statement]. [Required]

We do not have copyright to some of our collections—some were donated and a deed of gift was never signed, or they are orphaned. Whether or not we have the rights to a collection is noted here. If a collection is on deposit at the Archives, the corporate body will retain copyright, however the Archives is authorized to permit use on the corporate body’s behalf. For example, “Copyright to materials created by the Wildflower Garden Club is held by the Wildflower Garden Club, with the Archives authorized to permit use on their behalf. Materials in the collection authored by other individuals or organizations may be subject to copyright not held by the Wildflower Garden Club or the Archives.”

A collection where a deed of gift was signed would have a rights note similar to the following: “Copyright to the photographs and any materials in the collection authored by Loren Taft is held by Archives and Special Collections. Other materials may be subject to copyright not held by the Archives.”

Preferred citation: [collection name], Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage. [Required]

To ensure that users of our materials cite our collections correctly, we include a preferred citation note in our finding aids. We are also the repository for collections donated to the Alaska Historical Society. Those collections have a slightly different citation requirement: “[collection name], Alaska Historical Society collections, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.”

Works used in preparation of inventory: [list]

If the biographical note or organizational history was provided by the donor, or another person, we will credit them here. Occasionally we must research this information ourselves, so we will cite sources we used as well.

Separated materials: [note].

We collect unique, one-of-a-kind material, generally not published. Sometimes collections are donated with books, published reports, and newspapers, which we remove from the collection. If these items are annotated or obscure, we will have them cataloged to be added to the Rare Books collection. We will also give these items to acquisitions to be added to the Alaskana Collection at the Consortium Library, or offer them to other libraries in the state if the Consortium Library already has copies.

Sometimes, when collections are donated, they may contain material created by someone else, which we determine should be its own collection. We will also note that here. Examples would be the Art Hobson photograph album that was donated with the Walter J. Hickel papers, or the Manila D. Talley papers, which were separated from her husband’s papers, the Benjamin B. Talley papers, at the time the collection was being described by an archivist.

Related materials: [note].

If we have other collections in our holdings, or know of other archives with similar collections, we will note that here, and try to provide a link to those collections. For instance, we have the papers of both Russ Dow and his wife, Rusty; they are separate collections, but they relate to each other. Another example are the papers of the Strandberg, Doheny, and Erickson families. We have the David and Jenny Strandberg family papers, the papers of their son Harold, and their daughter and son in-law Olga and Lawrence Doheny, the Erickson family papers (Josephine Erickson was Jenny Strandberg’s sister), and Strandberg Mines, Inc. records, which was formed by David Strandberg and eventually run by Harold. Related to that are the Robert Geehan papers, which primarily contains the financial records of the Cripple Creek Mining Company owned by Strandberg Mines, Inc.

Another example would be if another archives holds the papers of a person that we also have papers of. Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has the Frederick C. Mears collection, which pertains to engineering projects Mears was involved. We, on the other hand, have the Frederick Mears family papers. The papers were originally loaned by the Mears family to Katherine Carson Crittenden for her research on the Mears’s family history. In 2006 Marilyn Richards, granddaughter of Colonel Mears, gave Crittenden permission to transfer the Mears family papers to us. So there are two Frederick Mears collections, one in Anchorage, which contains personal, family, and some official papers, and one in Fairbanks which mostly contains his professional papers.

Custodial history: [note].

The custodial history note informs the user if the materials were held by another institution or person prior to it coming to us. In the case of Charles Lucier, his papers were held by Tiger Burch, which is noted in the finding aid. The Robert Geehan papers were originally donated to the Alaska and Polar Regions Collections & Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who in turn transferred the collection to us when they saw we have the Strandberg Mines, Inc. records.

Acquisition note: [note]. [Required]

This informs the user who, or what corporate body, donated the collection to us.  We also include if a deed of gift or deposit agreement was signed, and by who and when. Examples would be: “The collection was deposited in the Archives by the Anchorage Woman’s Club in 2015, and a formal deposit agreement signed by AWC president Suzette Mashburn, and AWC president-elect Susan Jensen.” or “The collection was donated to Archives and Special Collections by Johnny Ellis in 2016. A deed of gift was signed by Ellis at that time.”

Processing information: [Required] This collection was described by [processor] in [CCYY]. [Required]

Information regarding who described the collection, what was done to the collection while it was being described, and when it was described is included in this note. The past few years we have been re-describing our older collections so that every collection has this finding aid format. In these cases, we will note the original processor and year it was initially described if we know, and that it was converted to current standard (using DACS and this finding aid format), and by whom and when. We will also mention if scrapbooks were dismantled, or material rearranged, or if original folder titles were retained.

Some example processing notes are “The scrapbook was dismantled, contents arranged by document type, and collection described by [John Doe] in 2006. The guide to the collection was converted to current standard by Gwen Sieja in 2015.” and “This collection was described by Veronica Denison in 2016. Material was removed from binders at that time. Original folder and binder titles were retained and used in the box description in the container list below.”

Location of originals: [statement].

Although we do not typically accept copied collections, sometimes we receive collections that have some copies, and the originals were not given to us. Usually the donor, or the family, keeps the originals, which is noted here.

Container list: [table]

Not all of our finding aids include a container list, but if they do, it is usually an item level listing, box listing, or box and folder listing.



Completed Finding Aid


Guide to the W. Jack Peterson papers

circa 1970-1996

Collection number: HMC-0462.

Creator: Peterson, W. Jack.

Title: W. Jack Peterson papers.

Dates: circa 1970-1996.

Volume of collection: 7 cubic feet.

Language of materials: Collection materials in English.

Collection summary: Faculty papers of a Professor of Sociology specializing in gerontology.

Biographical note:

Jack Peterson began teaching at UAA in 1971, specializing in social issues related to aging and dying. He served on several university committees and boards, including as the faculty representative to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and with several other Athletics department committees. Professor Peterson retired from UAA in 1997.

Collection description:

The collection contains Jack Peterson’s files relating to University of Alaska Anchorage athletics activities, research project and organizational files, other university committees on which he served, and an annotated bibliography of reports and publications related to his research interests. The research project and organizational files relate to sociological studies of Alaskan villages, studies related to Grand Coulee, Washington, and gerontology-affiliated groups to which he belonged. The bibliography consists of cards containing publication information and subject annotations for publications and research reports published between 1963 and 1992.

Arrangement: The materials are roughly grouped by subject or activity: athletics-related records are grouped together, university-related materials, and research projects.

Digitized copies: Digital copies of collection material not available online. For information about obtaining digital copies, please contact Archives and Special Collections.

Access restrictions: Materials in the collection may be subject to privacy restrictions.  Requests to use the material must be made in advance of a research visit.

Rights note: Some materials in the collection may be subject to copyright restrictions.

Preferred citation: W. Jack Peterson papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage.

Works used in preparation of inventory: University of Alaska Anchorage. Office of Academic Affairs, UAA faculty profiles. Anchorage, Alaska: University of Alaska Anchorage, 1991.

Acquisition note: The papers were given to the Archives by Jack Peterson in 1997. A deed was signed at that time.

Processing information: This collection was initially described by Arlene Schmuland in 2011. Some non-permanent university records were removed from the collection and destroyed at that time.

Container list:

Box Description Dates
1-3 UAA Athletics records 1983-1996
3-4 Research project files circa 1970-1985
5 University files circa 1984-1992
6-7 Annotated bibliography cards undated




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