Course:3: Processing
Lesson:Lesson 4: Description
Topic:Writing Your Own Finding Aids

Writing Your Own Finding Aids

Archivists don’t just sit down and write a finding aid. Instead, as they research, take notes, and learn about the collection, they do so with the finding aid in mind. When the collection has been processed, they take their knowledge and their notes in hand to create the final finding aid.

So as you process a collection, you will need to keep the elements of a finding aid in mind to make sure you gather and note the information you need for the finding aid.

Let’s take a look at each core element now. You may wish to download the Example Finding Aid to which we refer below. The core elements are identified in the document for reference.

Unique Collection Number

You should assign each processed collection a unique collection number. Programs create and assign these numbers in different ways depending on how their collections are organized. Click here to see an example.

Record Creator

The person or group responsible for creating or using the group of records (not the individual items within the collection). Click here to see example. Use the name that the person or group is most commonly known by. For example,

  • Use Stevie Wonder, not Steveland Morris
  • Use Malcolm X, not Malcolm Little

Collection Title

The descriptive title you assign to the collection. Click here to see an example.

Titles for archival collections are usually quite broad because the content is so varied. Usually the title is made up of a combination of the name of the record creator and the predominant type of material that is in the collection. Be as specific as you can, while still accurately reflecting the content of the collection.

For example, the James Tayson Personal Papers would be an accurate title for a collection that included letters, diaries, and personal financial records. However, if the collection consisted only of letters from World War II, a better title would be the James Tayson World War II Letters.

The ABC Bakery Records might be more appropriately called the ABC Bakery Financial Records.

The Linda Smith Photograph Collection might be more appropriately called the Linda Smith Family Photograph Collection.

Collection Dates

The dates of the records should be included in the finding aid. Click here for example. Often the dates are included as part of the collection title--James Tayson Papers, 1923-1958.

Biographical Sketch or Organizational History

This section contains a brief overview of the main events in the history of the creator, providing the user with enough information to understand the context in which the records were created. You gathered this information when you researched the collection’s provenance. Click here for an example.


This element should describe the collection, including the types of materials, dates, and information about how it has been arranged. It should also discuss the strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in the collection; and it should note any significant subjects, people, or organizations. The best descriptions bring out what is hidden in the collection--bringing to light what might not be obvious to the researcher.

You gather this information from your processing notes, from the pre-processing research you did, and from your own knowledge of the collection. For an example, click here.

Access Restrictions

If there are any access restrictions and/or copyright statements that pertain to this collection, they should be noted in the finding aid. This information should be part of your accession and/or acquisition record. For an example, click here.

Inventory – List of Boxes and Folders

The inventory element acts as a detailed table of contents to the collection. It usually consists of a listing of the folder title, folder number, and box number. The goal of the inventory is to allow the researcher to identify precisely what box or folder is needed. For an example, click here.

It might look something like this:

Box 1


January 1955 - June 1955

Folder 1


July 1955 – November 1955

Folder 2


December 1955 - May 1956

Folder 3


Elements checklist

 Tip icon 

A word of caution: Do not include the specific shelf location of the collection in the finding aid.

If your collection number reflects the exact location of the collection, you might consider changing your numbering system.  

Including the exact shelf location of the collection creates a high security risk--making researchers aware of the precise location of the materials.

 James Tayson

 ABC Bakery

Try to accurately reflect the contents of the collection.