The key to locating items in these collections is through a “finding aid.” Like the index or table of contents to a book, the finding aid is a guide to the collection. As the name implies, the finding aid helps researchers find the resources they need. Each finding aid provides information about the creation and historical context of a collection, explains how it is organized, and outlines its contents, so that you can identify and request the materials relevant to your research. Finding aids may vary in style and amount of detail, but they are all meant to help you locate the archival and manuscript collections you need. Some finding aids contain links to digitized versions of documents or images, but in most instances you must come to the library to view these non-circulating collections.

Northwestern's finding aids contain the following categories of information: Summary Information; Biographical/Historical Information; Scope and Contents; Subjects; and a List of Contents/Container List.

Summary Information: This section of the finding aid includes basic information covering the collection and its use. This includes: the collection title; the date range of materials included in the collection; the library housing the collection, including contact information; when the materials were acquired by Northwestern and who they were acquired from; any conditions governing access to the materials; specific conditions governing the use of the materials; information describing materials removed from the collection; cross references to related materials that may be found in other Northwestern collections or in other libraries or museums. The final section of the Summary Information is an abstract briefly describing the collection’s creation, size and contents.

Biographical/Historical Information: This section of the finding aid presents background information on the person or group responsible for the creation of the materials in the collection. The biographical or historical information may describe the person or group responsible for collecting the materials rather than creating them. Depending on the finding aid, the information provided in the Biographical/Historical Information section may give a general overview of the life of a person or history of a company, or it may focus on the period and events surrounding the creation of the materials in the collection.

Scope and Contents: This section of the finding aid contains an overview of the materials in the collection and notes about the way they are arranged. Organization and arrangement can be alphabetical, chronological, by topic, or a combination of these. The length and amount of detail provided in the Scope and Contents varies by finding aid. Especially with a large collection, it is very helpful to read or search within the Scope and Content section of the finding aid to: get an idea of the potential amount of materials related to your research; see the highlights of the collection; find out how the collection is arranged; see what is not included. For example, if looking for correspondence from a particular person, the Scope and Content section may indicate whether both sides of his/her correspondence are included in the collection or if just incoming correspondence is included.

Subjects: The subject terms listed in this section are formal descriptive terms assigned to a collection by library staff. Subjects employ controlled vocabulary such as the Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH), the Library of Congress Name Authority File (LCNAF), and the National Library of Medicine’s Medical Subject Headings (MeSH). Click on a subject term listed for a finding aid to see a list of other finding aids for which the specified term applies.

List of Contents/Container List: This section of the finding aid presents a list of the materials in a collection. The level of detail in the finding aid’s List of Contents/Container List can vary depending on the collection. Some finding aids list and describe each item contained in the collection. Most finding aids, however, list and describe materials at the folder level. “Folder level” description indicates that each folder title listed in the List of Contents/Container List represents a group of similar or related materials housed within the same folder. Additionally, in many finding aids similar types of items or groups of folders are grouped into “series” or “sub-series” to reflect the relationship among groupings.

The List of Contents/Container List also indicates the physical container of an item or folder in the collection. This container information is located to the right of the content title in the finding aid. This information can help you specify which materials you want to look at in person and will aid library staff in locating and preparing the materials for you.