Archival Finding Aids

Parker [1977:161] says 'finding aids are the signposts which lead the archivists and the researcher to the information they are seeking about or from archives.' In this paper, the author is going to identify and explain the key finding aids used in accessing materials in an archival institution.
Finding aids can be defined as descriptions of the holding of the archival institution so as to establish intellectual control. Intellectual control is necessary because archivists need to know what they have [records], what it contains, and where it is. Researchers need to know what exist in the archival institution, what materials it has on specific topics, and what is in each collection.

Finding aids encompass a range of descriptive media such as registers,lists, guides, inventories and indexes. Parker [1977:159] says finding aids '...establish physical and intellectual control over holdings of an archive and make it possible to retrieve particular records or information from these archives'

One of the finding aids is the accession register. The accession register provides a general description of what it is and where it comes from and a proper housing of the material. Each accession is given an identifying number which, along with a description of the materials, name of the transferring source, the provenance and other relevant details, entered in the accession register. The accession register is the first and most basic finding aid prepared by the archivist. It provides a profile of all incoming material in the order in which it was received by the repository.

Besides the accession register, there is a register of series. The register of series is used to record information about each document or file that is received by, dispatch, or created in an office. Roper [1999:]
The register of series is the master record indicating the group, series and
item numbers that have been allocated. Archives staff will maintain this
register; ideally, the head of the repository is responsible...The register is
maintained in group code order, and within groups in series number order.

As well as providing a master record of group and series, the register of
Series is used to record the last file unit number allocated within each series.
This means it saves as a source of information on the next available file unit

Another archival finding aid is the archives guide. The archives guide is the overall finding aid to the holdings of the archival institution. The guide provides information about archival materials at the group and series level. Cook [1977:122] says the objectives of a guide are two fold;
Firstly, it should give an explanatory over-view set out to convey essential information about provenance and content to user...The main purpose may be the education of users completely new to the operations of an archive office. Secondly it should give a coordinating over-view also of the finding aids and descriptive systems in use in the archives office. In so far as a guide is for identification, it is to enable the user to identify, not actual archives, but those further or more detailed lists or descriptive instruments which he must use in order to find the archives he needs.

A guide in conclusion, is a collected series of entries arranged in predetermined order, each describing a particular series of archives, and displayed according to a set pattern.

The fourth finding aid found in an archival institution is the archival list or the item list. A list assists in locating records. It provides a full inventory of all materials transferred to the archival institution, within their groups and series, assigning to each item a unique reference code. This code enables any partial or item to be identified and found.

The item list help in identifying provenance: list records essential information about the provenance, making it possible to understand and understand the archives. It also helps in describing the content, identifying related material found in the repository, describing the physical condition of the archives. It presents information about the physical character, format and condition of the items on any related issues that might affect their use. Lastly , the list explain conditions of access.

Cook[1977:120] says there are two kinds of lists available to an archivist; one based upon the structure of the archives, and the other based on the needs of users.

Structural lists will only be of direct identification of relevant documents to the obviously relatively few readers whose purpose is the investigation of the historical growth and operation of the administration whose archives are under study. This structural system lists will account for the series and items in an accumulation of archives in an order determined by its original administrative structure.

However the majority of users need subject list because their enquiries will be received in terms of subject. Subject lists are arranged according to subjects of the archives.

The last key archival finding aid, I would like to explain is the index. The index is an instrument which allows users to identify particular documents or pieces of information relevant to their search, and it is therefore the means whereby the arrangement and interpretation of archives in series may be modified to make subject-based inquiries possible.

An index will highlight names, place, events and subjects. It is an important tool in pointing readers to relevant holdings. With a good index, the institution can make continuous use of the expertise of the staff that has helped compile it, and readers are able to make quite accurate searches, thus saving everybody time. Roper[2003] says in order to be effective, an index needs to be internally consistent. One member of staff should be in charge of the index from the list.

In conclusion, though I had explained a few finding aid found in an archive, the archivist should construct as many as varied examples of these as are necessary for the full exploitation of the information to be found in his archives.

[1] Cook M- Archives Administration, Dawson & Son Ltd 1977
[2]Pederson-Australia Society of Archivists Inc 1987
[3]Roper-Managing Archives 1999
[4]Parker S., Managing Archives and archival institutions 1980
[5]Cook 'Information Management & Arch

Etiwel Mutero holds a Bsc  Honours Degree in Records and Archives Management from the Zimbabwe Open University.Do you want assistance in writing your college or university assignment? You can contact Etiwel Mutero on 00263773614293 or

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