Finding Aids: The Keys to Unlocking MHM's Archives

26, October 2016
Two finding aidsFinding aids help locate information within a collection.

Imagine you have a great-grandmother named Ethel, and she told stories about a love affair with a World War I soldier who died on the fields of the Meuse-Argonne. They exchanged letters that remained in your family until after her death. You’d like to read them, but they’ve been donated to the Missouri History Museum, along with genealogy research, newspaper clippings, and business records. The entire donation fills 28 boxes, but you’re interested solely in great-grandma’s love letters.

In such situations, finding aids, which provide context and help locate information in a collection, are extremely useful tools for researchers and archivists alike. Finding aids may include donation information, a scope and content note, arrangement details, potential restrictions on use, and biographical information relating to a collection, all of which helps researchers pinpoint and request the relevant records.

Historically, the main finding aid for the Museum's Archives was the Archives Card Catalog. It contains references to personal and corporate names, places, and subjects within many of the institution’s older collections. It's still a valuable tool, but you must be physically present at the Museum's Library and Research Center (LRC) to access it—and it hasn’t been updated in over 25 years.

The Archives Card Catalog at the LRCThe Archives Card Catalog at the LRC.

For years now our more recent collection-specific finding aids have been available in PDF format so researchers can either prepare for a trip to the LRC or request photocopies or scans of materials from afar. Now we're taking that a step further with EAD (Encoded Archival Description) finding aids. Thanks to the magic of technology, EAD allows us to define exactly what each piece of information in a finding aid means and then share that information across multiple platforms, such as library catalogs and ArchiveGrid.

After a brief flirtation with creating EAD finding aids from scratch, we set about looking for software that could do the dirty work for us. Enter ArchivesSpace, a web application that encodes information entered into EAD by archivists. Because we're starting from the beginning, creating these records has involved a lot of copying and pasting into defined fields. But for institutions that already have electronic finding aids in place, the system allows for easy importing, editing, and exporting. Here’s what Archives volunteer Sarah Wohaska has to say about working with the application:

As with any new system, ArchivesSpace takes practice to learn, but we became comfortable working with it fairly quickly. I enter information at the top of a finding aid and work my way down, box by box, and item by item. There is a viewer at the top of the screen that shows items as I add them, making it easy to double-check myself. This is my favorite feature in the system because I like viewing the entire collection in context before I am done.

ArchivesSpace also has the option of adding digital objects, which allows a user to see the digitized manuscripts linked from a finding aid. Depending on what someone is seeking, they may be able to conduct all their research online with this feature. If a user wishes to see items in person, the finding aid can tell the user precisely where to find them—down to which folder it is in.

ArchivesSpaceAn example of a finding aid entered in ArchivesSpace.

Although the coding is great for computers, it’s hard for researchers to interpret. We soon realized we needed to create a style sheet that would display the finding-aid information online in a way that's useful and visually attractive. Our friends at Yale University Library kindly shared their style-sheet code with us, and we’ve adapted it for our own use.

So far, Sarah and I have finished nearly 20 EAD finding aids, including the Kate Chopin Papers and the Faust-Busch Family Papers. Converting the rest of our existing finding aids will be a long project, but we're looking forward to bringing you more of these enhanced finding aids in the months ahead!

—Jaime Bourassa, Associate Archivist, Digitization

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