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Introduction to Archival Research at MSU Libraries

This guide has been designed to help researchers locate and access Archives & Special Collections materials at Mississippi State University Libraries.

How to Read a Finding Aid

What is a finding aid?
A finding aid is a roadmap to any given archival collection that provides researchers with a description of the collection and its contents. Most finding aids include a descriptive overview of the collection as well as a list of its contents by series, box, folder, or item. This document is an essential research tool that assists researchers in determining if a collection will fit their research needs and helps researchers pinpoint the exact materials in a collection that they will need to access.

Basic Sections and Elements
Below is a list of sections and elements commonly found in finding aids. It is important to note that finding aids may have different components at other repositories. These are the basic elements that you will see on finding aids at Mississippi State University Libraries.

Collection Summary: The collection summary section commonly includes the following fields:

Collection Title: The title given to the collection by the repository. It most commonly reflects the creator of any given collection.
Collection Number: Sometimes referred to as a manuscript(s) number, call number, etc.
Dates: May be inclusive or bulk. Refers to when the materials in the collection were created.
Creator: Refers to the individual, family, group, or organization responsible for the formation of a collection.
Extent: May be measured in cubic or linear feet or in boxes. Describes the quantity of the material being described.
Language(s): Lists the represented language(s) in a collection.

Administrative Information: This section contains information regarding the usage and background of any collection. Commonly used fields include:

Conditions Governing Access: Lists any permissions necessary to use materials. This section may also note any restricted items in a collection.
Immediate Source of Acquisition: Notes who donated the collection or from where it came.
Preservation Note: The measures taken to ensure that a collection is cared for and stored properly.
Preferred Citation: Directions on how researchers should cite the collection.
Processing Note: Generally lists who organized the collection and wrote its finding aid.
Rights Statement: A brief statement regarding the legal rights of a collection. Most repositories require researchers to ask for permission before publishing any of the material in a collection.

Collection Description: This section contains descriptive information about the collection such as:

Biographical/Historical Note: A summary detailing biographical information or organizational history relating to the collection. Generally, collections that were created by a person or family will contain a Biographical Note, while collections that were created by a group or organization will contain a Historical Note.
Scope and Content: An overview of what types of materials make up a collection.
System of Arrangement: A description of how the collection has been organized and may include information on the various sections of a collection (i.e., series and subseries) and the specific system chosen for arrangement (e.g., by material type, subject, date, or another filing system).
Subject(s): A list of terms, themes, or topic covered within a collection.

Container List: This portion of the finding aid lists the range of materials included in every container associated with the collection. This list often includes box numbers, folder numbers, and a brief description of the contents of any given folder. It is rare, but not unheard of, to describe materials at the item level.

Where can I find finding aids for collections?
Many of our finding aids may be found in our information management system, ArchivesSpace.  Please see our tutorial, How to Use Archives Space, for more information about this database. If you have trouble locating a finding aid for any collection, please reach out to the Archives & Special Collections Department at for help.

How can I request to view archival materials? What information from the finding aid should be related to an archivist when requesting materials?
Researchers may request an appointment to view any of our collections by emailing the Archives & Special Collections Department at Researchers should include (at minimum) the collection's title, collection number, the boxes they wish to view, and the desired appointment date and time. Providing this information ahead of one's research appointment gives archivists ample time to retrieve the materials for viewing. Once initial contact has been made, a representative from one of our divisions will reply to confirm the Department's availability.

Downloadable Tutorial