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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian: Archival Centres  by Ryan Taylor. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


Finding Aids

The finding aid is the basic tool for finding one’s way around a manuscript collection. It is an inventory of what a fonds consists of, with a listing of each archival series, perhaps folder by folder, a history of the collection (its provenance) and, very important to the researcher, its scope and contents.

More and more finding aids are becoming available online at the archives website, in which case the researcher can prepare by studying them at home before visiting. Some are not. It is well worth the time to discover what fonds might be helpful to you, obtain their finding aids and settle down to have a good look at them.

At the Ontario archives, a list of finding aids hangs by the shelving which houses them, so that researchers can have quicker access to what aids are available. At the Alberta archives, the Main Entry Catalogue provides subject access to various collections and from there researchers may ask to see the finding aid for a particular collection to see if it may contain items for examination. (Even at that stage, it may be uncertain whether the documents will contain anything of use. Only by looking at the document can the researcher be sure they are useful, and of course, a great many which look promising are not.)

If the location of finding aids in the reading room is not obvious, ask a staff member to show you where they are kept. If you have a research lull while waiting for materials to arrive from storage, it can profitably be filled by browsing in the finding aids available.

A finding aid may consist of the following sections:

  • provenance
  • how the materials were used
  • contents and physical characteristics
  • restrictions on use
  • scope and contents note, summary and evaluation
  • box list or file list

The Provenance

Of these, longest is the last. The provenance of an archival collection tells who compiled or collected the materials and where they spent time before reaching the archives. How they were used describes their original purpose, if that is unclear. The contents and physical characteristics state the size, whether in papers or books, and how the fonds is housed.


Restrictions placed on the collection may be as thorough as disallowing any access until a certain date in the future, requiring permission from an archivist or the donor before using, or something simpler. These restrictions may originate with conditions laid down by the donor at the time the fonds was given to the archives[1], for legal reasons including copyright or for privacy, or because of the materials’ condition. If there are restrictions about use, it is pointless to try to argue with the archivist about it. The person at the reference desk did not set the restrictions and is probably powerless to lift them.

Scope and Contents

The scope and contents is of great importance to the researcher, because here is the principal description in a nutshell. The method of creation of the collection may be implied here. This note should make clear what is included, in clear and unambiguous language, and will also offer some idea to what use the fonds could be put. From it, the researcher should be able to judge whether it might contain information of use to their genealogy.

If the researcher judges that there might be something useful in the collection, they should look through the box or file list to see which items they want to examine. They can then request them. You may receive a boxful of materials at once (including the item you requested and other things also), or merely a single folder containing the item you asked for. As stated earlier, a great many documents will seem promising when listed in the finding aid, only to prove uninteresting once they lay before you. This is part of archival research and should not be discouraging. Pass on quickly to the next thing on your list.

Finding aids vary considerably in quality. The Canadian Council of Archives has published bibliographical standards for archives in its Rules for Archival Description (RAD), which is constantly updated. It can be read or downloaded, in part or in whole, in PDF format from their website. However, many finding aids were written before RAD was in existence, or were created by untrained workers.

In the past finding aids may have contained more administrative history (history of the creating agency) and less detail in the content area[2]. This is often remedied by new finding aids being created which are more detailed and reflect a modern view of what a finding aid should be. If you visited some archives some years ago and consulted a finding aid for a particular collection at that time, it may be worth looking at it again, as it may have been completely revamped.

In small or underfunded archives, there are few staff positions available for the long process of evaluating and sorting an archival collection, then creating the finding aid. This task may be undertaken by summer students, untrained part-time workers or volunteers. The archives are grateful for the chance to have the collection organized at all and will make the finding aid available on that basis, but it may be that the researcher will be disappointed in the quality of the finding aid and not find it adequate in describing the collection.

Because of these difficulties of time and personnel, there will be collections for which there is no finding aid. Ask the archivist if there are any of these which might be helpful for your research. Be prepared for these collections to be disorganized; it may require considerable effort to wade through the material.

Consider the experience of two researchers who were told of some diaries from the 1860s available at a municipal archives in Ontario. They confirmed that the collection was available, made an appointment to view and arrived at the appointed time. The collection, which had not been sorted as yet, was brought to the research table in a series of green plastic garbage bags and elderly cardboard boxes. Although the research had some pleasant aspects of Christmas Morning about it, a great deal of time was wasted sorting through the unwanted artifacts to find the pictures and diaries which were the focus of the visit.

The finding aid should be dispassionate in its approach to the material. There should be no bias in its writing, but it may note the viewpoint of the collector as a way of informing potential researchers of what it contains. Omissions from the collection, either losses or things which might have been found there but were not collected, may be usefully noted by the compiler. Analysis as well as description is also helpful.

In any situation where the researcher suspects a collection will be useful, it is wise to have a look at it anyway. If you find it is quite different than expected, it can quickly be returned to storage. The only limits are based on the amount of time available to the researcher and the number of requests the archives can handle at any given time.

The description of photographs, audio resources and moving images in finding aids has been less adequate than manuscripts because there has been even less agreement on the form the descriptions should take.

Researchers who are new to archival work will discover that finding aids may be somewhat daunting at first. They should ask for the assistance of the reference archivist in mediating between them and the finding aid until they feel more comfortable. This mediation should be regarded as a basic part of the archival reference process.[3]

As archives face a future with more and more technological advances, the placing of finding aids online is one way to make their collections more accessible in a relatively inexpensive manner. Digitizing entire archival collections will be very expensive and will take a very long time to do. Placing the finding aid for a collection on the web can be done quickly. A number of Canadian archives already make some of their finding aids available on the web, and more can be found there all the time. If you have looked for finding aids at a particular website and not found the one you want, it is worth checking back periodically, as this is certainly an area of considerable growth in the archival world.

Record Availability Online

Once finding aids are available online it may be possible to search them by using individual words or terms. This is handy, but it is a temptation for the researcher to do the search without reading the descriptive elements of the finding aid, particularly the scope and contents note. This is unwise. The scope and contents will always provide the researcher with a solid idea of whether the collection is going to be useful.

Here is an example. A quick search for ‘William Fisher’ may reveal that there is a document mentioning William Fisher in the collection. However, if the William Fisher you are searching for was born in 1890 and the collection covers the period 1840-1847, you can be sure the William Fisher in the document is not the one you want. The scope and contents note would have revealed this, ending the search before it reached the stage of requesting the document.

Arrangement of Government Records

The records will be arranged by a system which ensures that materials can easily be identified and similar materials kept together. This is the same as the classification scheme in a library, which we all know.

While users of archives do not need to know or even understand the system in use, it can help those who will be researching in archives over the long term to know the rationale behind the call numbers they encounter. A clear explanation of the system at the Archives of Ontario, written by Bob Krawczyk, which includes the theory behind the familiar ‘RG’ arrangement, can be found.


  1. Through a Deed of Gift (DOG), the donor conveys ownership of the collection to the archives and can place restrictions on its use or accessibility at the time.
  2. Ruth, page 273
  3. Pugh, page 6


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