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Manuscript Division


Understanding Manuscripts: A Basic Introduction
Manuscript Catalog Records
arrow graphicFinding Aids
Women's History Guides and Access Tools





Finding Aids

What is a Finding Aid?

Finding aids are sometimes called inventories or registers. They are guides created by division archivists in the course of processing a collection. They rarely describe every item individually but rather embody the archival view of a manuscript collection as groups of related documents that are arranged and analyzed collectively in an effort to preserve their context and reflect their provenance and the relationship between items (see Understanding Manuscripts: A Basic Introduction).

Although finding aids occasionally vary in format according to the nature of the collection, most division finding aids are divided into several parts:

  • Administrative information about the source or creator of the collection, the custodial history of the documents, and the conditions under which they may be consulted, reproduced, or quoted.
  • A biographical note or organizational history listing the important dates and events in the life of the individual or organization featured in the collection.
  • Scope and content note describing the arrangement of the collection, the major topics covered, and any notable gaps or weaknesses in the collection.
  • Series description outlining the major groups or series of papers.
  • Container list, which is usually in hierarchical outline form, identifying in progressive detail the contents of the papers together with the corresponding micro film reel number or container number of each file.
  • Some finding aids also include partial or complete name indexes to the correspondence contained in the collection.

Locating Manuscript Finding Aids

Detailed finding guides or registers exist for virtually all of the division's larger collections. More than two thousand are available for use in the reading room, and photocopies of these may be ordered for a fee. About seven hundred of the division's finding aids were reproduced on microfiche by a commercial publisher and distributed under the title National Inventory of Documentary Sources in the United States: Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (Teaneck, N.J.: Chadwyck-Healy, 1983; Microfiche Ref). Copies of this microfiche are available in libraries throughout the country.

Online Access

In the last few years, the division has begun converting its paper finding aids to electronic form for distribution over the Internet. Only a small percentage have been converted so far, but they are freely accessible from the division's Web site, their full text searchable for now through character-string searches and later through more advanced techniques. To view a list or to search these guides, see Manuscript Division Finding Aids Available Online.

Searching the online versions allows researchers to uncover more quickly than before the names of people, places, groups, and subjects that do not appear in the abbreviated catalog records. Yet even with such enhancements, finding guides are still only aids to research. They cannot substitute for a scholar's detailed examination of the actual papers.

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