Finding Aids are descriptive tools which serve as the primary point of intellectual access to archival collections in archives and manuscript repositories. A finding aid may take on various shapes and be called by a variety of names (e.g., finding guide, inventory, register) but generally performs a dual function — it serves both as the primary access tool used in archival reference of a collection, and as a complex management device used by archivists themselves in the administration of that collection.
Modern finding aids for manuscript and archival collections in the David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Duke have been developing and evolving since the late 1980's. Prior to that time, most of the description of manuscripts was done on catalog cards. These cards can be found in the "Main File" of the manuscript card catalog in the Rubenstein Library Reading Room. In addition, a Guide to the Cataloged Collections in the Manuscript Department of the William R. Perkins Library, Duke University was published in 1981, that essentially reproduces (in edited form) most of the content of the card catalog as it then existed.
These finding aids typically consist of several elements. They include a title page which gives the formal title and dates of the collection, along with acquisition and restrictions information, and a statement of extent (measured in both linear feet and estimated item count). The next element is a biographical/historical summary of the significant events in either the life of the person or the corporate body or organization whose papers/records constitute the collection. Following this is a descriptive summary of the scope and contents of the collection, including information on the overall organization of the collection, materials of particular significance, and important topics and/or persons represented. The detailed contents of each collection are given in the container list which is arranged according to the actual physical organization of the materials. The content and scope of each organizational unit in the collection (typically called a "series," with units within series known as "sub-series") are described in a brief note at the beginning of each series within the container list. This note is followed by a box list which gives box numbers and folder titles within each box. Some earlier finding aids have a separate "description of series" in which the individual organizational units are described separately from the actual container list. Current practice is to combine such descriptions with the corresponding section of the container list. Additional elements which may or may not be present in finding aids include bibliographies of published writings, processing notes, and special indexes.
All finding aids at Duke have been encoded according to the standards of Encoded Archival Description (EAD) Version 2002, an XML-compliant structure developed and maintained jointly by the Society of American Archivists and the Library of Congress. This encoding, or "mark-up," enables the display and detailed searching of all archival finding aids over the Internet. Thus, each of the structural elements of the Duke finding aids noted in the previous paragraph (and, perhaps more importantly, information within these elements such as dates, personal and corporate names, geographic place names, subjects, etc.) have all been encoded so as to optimize structured, contextual searching, both within individual finding aids as well as across all Duke finding aids or some subset thereof.For more information on Encoded Archival Description see:
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