How to Use a Finding Aid:  

The Austin History Center has a vast number of archival collections, and we use finding aids to describe materials within them to help users access them. This guide explains what a finding aid is, the information it covers, and how it helps with research.

An Introduction to Finding Aids

Finding aids are common tools used in archives to describe collections they have into a coherent summary for public use. There is a lot of information contained in a finding aid, but don’t worry — it’s nowhere near as overwhelming as it may seem. This guide will walk you through finding aids step by step, breaking down each section into clear definitions so you will feel more comfortable using one, be it at the Austin History Center or in another archival repository.

What Is an "Inventory" of a Collection?

At the top of each finding aid is the title of the collection, underneath which is the phrase “An Inventory of the Collection.” In the most basic sense, an inventory is simply an organized list of what can be found in the collection, from textual materials like reports and personal correspondence to photographs, posters, ledgers, and more.

Collection Overview

The Overview is a quick synopsis of the collection. It includes several identifying elements to give the user as much introductory information as possible. The creator, for example, is the person, organization, or other entity that created and collected the materials that make up the collection. “Inclusive Dates” indicates the earliest and latest dates included in the collection. Sometimes, there will be a “Bulk Dates” listed as well, which means a large portion of the materials covers this more specific span of time. If present, this will be found under the inclusive dates.

The Abstract is a brief summary of the scope and content of the collection, and can contain some biographical information about the creator. This is a fast and easy way to determine if the collection is relevant to your research.

“Accession Number” refers to the unique identifier given to the collection. Rather than using the collection title, this number is how we find and keep track of the collection.

The Quantity gives the amount of space the collection takes up in the History Center, measured in linear feet, followed by the number of boxes or other means of storage it uses.

Collections may be stored in several different areas in the Austin History Center, so the “Location” tag is used to identify where the materials are kept. Sometimes, it may list one location, such as the Archive Stacks; other times, a collection may be split into several sections, such as qAR (which means oversized items that don’t fit in a regular box), Outer Vault (where cold storage items are kept), or Digital Storage (stored on our servers).

A collection may feature materials in more than one Language. As indicated in red in the image above, the Collection Summary will list all the languages included in the collection. Note, however, that not all materials in different languages will have translations.

The “Repository” section gives the physical address of where the collection is housed. More often than not, it will list the Austin History Center, but it could list other institutions located around Austin, like the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History or the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. A collection may also be housed outside the city, such as the Robert E. Nail, Jr. Archives in Albany, Texas, or the Albert and Ethel Herzstein Library in La Porte, Texas.

This snapshot of information allows users to quickly determine the relevance of the collection to their research.


Administrative History

Information about the individual or organization that produced the collection can be found in the Biographical Sketch or Administrative History, respectively. This discusses historical background, significant events or contributions, current incarnations, etc. In rare cases, “Creator Note” may be seen — this is often used when a collection is created artificially at the receiving institution (e.g., the Austin History Center).

Scope and Contents

The Scope and Contents describes the types, nature, and dates of materials in the collection. This is where the substance of a collection is written out, either broken up into multiple series (for larger collections) or as a general overview (for smaller collections). Gaps in documentation, if any, will be listed here as well.

Arrangement and Restrictions

Larger collections are usually arranged into categories, or "series," to better organize the information they contain. The number and names of these categories can be found in the Arrangement section. Smaller collections generally do not have this section in their finding aids.

If there are any procedures or prohibitions placed on the collection, they will be listed in the Restrictions section. Most collections are open to all users, but some require extra steps, such as advanced notice or a special appointment be made before accessing them, or that gloves be worn if fragile objects are contained in the collection. Restrictions on use of materials clarify how or if archival material can be published, who owns the copyright, etc.

Index Terms

To provide access points to the collection, we list Index Terms to indicate people, organizations, places, and subjects that feature prominently in the collection. These terms can be Library of Congress subject headings or local terms.

Related Material

Sometimes, there are materials in other collection units of the repository that relate to the materials in the collection. If our repository houses anything that shares a common provenance, creator, or subject matter with the described materials, it will show up in the Related Material section of the finding aid, categorized by collection.

Separated Material

Donated materials can sometimes be removed from their original collection. If so, these items will be moved to another collection (such as putting a printed newspaper into our Periodicals collection), returned to the original donor, or destroyed. This movement, if such occurs, will be found in the Separated Material section.

Administrative Information

Information about appraisal, custodial history, administrative interventions, restrictions, and reformatting is contained within the Administrative Information section. Here, users will find donor numbers, donation dates, proper citation formatting, changes of ownership, and other related information.

Detailed Description of the Collection

The Detailed Description is where the collection’s arrangement is fully expanded. Each series (if the collection has any) is bolded and given a date range, followed by a list of all the collection materials within that series, associated dates, and the locations of the items. Most collections will show a box and folder number, but some materials are kept in separate areas for various reasons, such as size or temperature requirements.

Although we try to keep this section in numerical order, this won’t always be the case, especially if additions are integrated into the collection. Sometimes, a finding aid will have series with boxes listed out of order, then they return to proper numbering for the rest of the listing.


Each finding aid is unique to the collection it describes, so there may be little quirks here and there that differ from this guide. But all of our finding aids follow this basic structure to make research manageable for all users.