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Willamette University Archives: How to read a Finding Aid

Anatomy of a Finding Aid

What is a Finding Aid?

What is a Finding Aid?

  • A guide or inventory of the contents of an archival collection.
  • Finding aids are created by archivists to give researchers a description of the items in the collection and where to locate an item within the collection.  

What is a Collection?

  • A group of materials with some unifying characteristic
  • In archival terms this usually refers to a set of materials that may have belonged to specific person, family, organization or company.
  • Archivists keep materials together in collections for the purpose of context.
  • Personal or family collections traditionally include letters, photographs, personal works such as writings, poetry, videos and other materials related to hobbies or community and organization involvement and items of personal importance.
  • Collections from corporations, organizations, and governmental bodies like cities or federal agencies typically include correspondence, account books, reports, meeting minutes, research, and other items created in the course of business.

What is a Series?

  • A grouping of materials within a collection with some unifying characteristic (such as topic, source, or type of material)

How are Finding Aids organized?

  • Hierarchically, from broad to specific
  • This means that information about a collection also pertains to each series, and information about each series also pertains to each file or item within it. To find out more about a file, look at what series it's part of. To find out more about a series, look at what collection it's part of.

What can you find in a Finding Aid?

Collection Information

  • Collection name
  • Collection ID #
  • Biography note (if a personal or family collection)
  • Historical note (if a corporation, organization or government entity)

Content Overview and Arrangement

  • Scope and Content note: explains the types and condition of materials in the collection
  • Date Range of materials
  • Arrangement note: lists the series (section) numbers and names, and provides an overview of each

Administrative Information

  • Provenance/Custodial History: who donated the material and what happened to the material before it arrived in the Archive
  • Processing note: describes what happened to the material since it arrived in the Archive
  • Conditions Governing Use: copyright note
  • Conditions Governing Access: restrictions to the collection, if any
  • Citation note

Related Materials

  • Points the researcher to other items in the archives or elsewhere that are closely related to the collection described in the finding aid.

Contents List

  • An inventory of the contents of the collection: can be listed by box, folder or item. By folder is the most common.

Where do I find Finding Aids?

Willamette University Archives Catalogue

Search: Enter a name, topic or term into the search box, click the search button
and a list of find aids will come up.
Browse: Select one of the four collecting areas listed on the right. A page with links to all the finding aids for the collecting area will come up.

Archives West

Archives West provides access to finding aids for archival collections in the Pacific Northwest, including artist collections in Willamette's Pacific Northwest Artist Archive.


Online Archive of California

The Online Archive of California gives access to the finding aids from archives, libraries and museums across the state.

Willamette University

Willamette University Libraries

Mark O. Hatfield Library
900 State Street.
Salem Oregon 97301
Pacific Northwest College of Art Library
511 NW Broadway.
Portland Oregon 97209