Scope and Content

NARA researcher

Research then v. now: National Archives employee William Lind helps researcher, 1972 (National Archives Flickr photostream)

What is a finding aid?

Simply put, a finding aid is a guide, a tool for discovery. More importantly, it is the researcher’s road map.

In some ways, doing research in history has changed dramatically with the digital age. The soundex is obsolete. If you’re lucky, you won’t need a dose of Dramamine to survive the microfilm machine.

In other ways, not much has changed. The caretaker of the books and records still is your best resource. He or she knows those little idiosyncrasies of the materials, where best to look, what types of information might or might not be included. Now as then, the reward is the same. When you find that one piece of paper or image that makes a connection you knew existed but hadn’t yet been able to establish, all the fine dust on your fingertips from turning page, after page, after page suddenly becomes worth it.

But choosing which tools to use when doing historical research is not always clear. Reading a finding aid is a skill, a skill you don’t necessarily learn in class. The first time a librarian showed me a finding aid I thought, “Wow! They’ve already done the hard part for me!”

I still had to learn phrases like “scope and content” to get the most out of research guides. Without this knowledge of how archives work, I found I couldn’t answer those nagging big pictures questions or address silences in the historical record. I had to go beyond what was easily at my fingertips to understand how a particular set of records came to be (a fancy word called provenance). Scope and content gave me a backstage pass to see when and where the materials came together and the type of information available.

In this blog, I plan to explore the discoveries and struggles of historical research. I will look at new and well-worn research tools for the historian’s proverbial “toolbox” and highlight interesting, easily accessible digital resources that I encounter along the way.

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