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Using finding aids

The inventory or the finding aid is the main guide providing access to the contents of a manuscript collection or archive. Most finding aids will have:

  • An explanatory introduction giving information on the archive's provenance, origin, content, size and physical character.
  • A listing of the various units of material down to the individual document, each with a unique identifier and a concise description of content.
  • A layout which facilitates the understanding and browsing of the collection's systematic arrangement.
  • Sometimes also a name or subject index.

Examples of finding aids:

Lewin, S.J. The Lewin family papers (MS 811, University of London Library): a catalogue, with introduction. [London, 1985].

William Hewitt Papers (MS 522), 1756-1790: in the University of London Library, with an introduction by Paul Kelly. East Ardsley, Wakefield, West Yorkshire: Microform Academic Pub., 1985.

You should be aware that a large number of lists, indexes and other finding aids held by repositories are unpublished typescripts compiled by archivists or librarians over time, some heavily annotated with corrections or additional vital information about various aspects of a collection.

Not all finding aids can be found online, although many repositories are now working to convert their finding aids into electronic form. The main holding database for these is A2A – Access to Archives, which contains finding aids (including the above examples) describing archives held throughout England and dating from the 900s to the present day.

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