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Archives at Bentley: How to Read a Finding Aid

Learn more about archives and special collections, including how to find historic material at the Bentley Library. Also learn about primary source research and preservation.

Start Here!

A finding aid is the most commonly used organizational tool in archives. They tend to be a lot longer than a library catalog record, and they usually provide a lot of descriptive information about what's in a collection and how you can find material.

Download the sample file to the right and then look over the rest of this page to see where in a finding aid you can find answers to common questions. If you can't download the file, we've included title headings so you can look sections up later!


Question: Who is represented in this collection?

Answer: Look at the Collection Title for information about the general focus of the collection. In this case, you know for sure that Presidents will be included. Another section to focus on is the Administrative History, or Biography if the collection is about a person or family. These sections give background information about the people and groups that are represented in the collection. 

Question: Who is responsible for  the material in this collection?

Answer: The first page of a finding aid usually tells you about the Creator, the person or persons who are responsible for the objects. The first page also usually features Acquisition Information, which tells you how Bentley got the material and Custodial History, which tells you if anyone else owned or cared for the material before us. 


Question: Where can I find material in the collection?

Answer: The Inventory section is where you will find all of the information you need about where material is located. It is organized by series/sub-series, and tells you about the contents of each box with as much specificity as possible. A date for the material will also usually be given. In the RG 01 Finding Aid, for example, you can find information about Mr. Adamian's inauguration - which took place in 1970 - in Box 20, Folder 3. This is how archivists will know what material to deliver to you at your appointment. 

Question: Where is this material from?

Answer: Both Acquisition Information and Custodial History can tell you more about where this material might have been housed before arriving in the Archives. You can also search the Subject Terms and look for any geographical locations that are mentioned as a focus of the collection. 


Question: How do I gain access to the material in this collection?

Answer: A large portion of a finding aid is usually dedicated to questions of access. Headings might include Conditions of Access, which tell you if any material is restricted, and Physical or Technical Access which tell you how to see materials in person, or view them using some type of digital technology. You can use the Inventory section to locate the specific materials you want, and then request them from the Archivist. 

Question: How is this material organized?

Answer: The Arrangement section will give you a general overview of how series/sub-series are organized in the collection. It may also contain a note on why this organization was chosen or how to navigate it. At the Bentley Archives, for example, collections are arranged based on the structure of the University. 

Download a Sample Finding Aid

This finding aid is for the Records of the Division of the President. The collection encompasses all of Bentley's Presidents, as well as offices like the General Counsel and Human Resources that report directly to the President. 


Question: What is actually in this collection?

Answer: For general information about what you can expect to find in a collection, head straight to the Scope and Content Note, sometimes called an Abstract. The purpose of this section is to tell you more about the nature of the collection. Often it will have helpful information about what topics or formats are most common - like if a series consists almost exclusively of letters or memos. The Inventory shows you the contents of the collection with the most specificity that's available. 

Question: What other material does this collection relate to?

Answer: Try looking at the Related Archival Materials section to see if there are other collections, at Bentley or elsewhere, that we have identified. The Publication Note will let you know if any material has been published based on the information in this collection. Finally, look at the Subject Terms near the end of the finding aid to see Library of Congress search terms that relate to this collection. 


Question: When was this material created?

Answer: The first page of a finding aid will usually have a section for Dates which will tell you where the collection begins and ends, chronologically. There may be an added section called Bulk Dates which tell you when a majority of the material was created. To find out about more specific dates (for a certain series, item, etc) look at the Inventory section. Dates will usually be listed there if they are available. 

Question: When was this material organized or modified?

To find out when a repository received a collection, look at the Acquisition Information. The "Processed By" section may tell you when a collection was most recently organized. Accruals, on the other hand, will tell you if more new material is expected to join the collection, and if so when. 

More Questions?

If you have more questions about how to use a finding aid to get materials from the Bentley Archives, or about archival organization in general, please contact the Archives. We are happy to help guide you through any issues you might be experiencing! If you'd like more visual examples, try one of these two videos that give examples of finding aids and talk about navigation.