Characteristics of Successful Finding Aids

Finding Aids: a definition

Archival finding aids provide researchers with information about the contents and nature of documentary materials in archival repositories. Finding aids may be published or unpublished, in a variety of forms including print, microform and digital media. Repository guides, record group inventories, registers to collections of personal papers, and subject and other multi-collection guides are among traditional finding aids that archival institutions produce.

Despite their variety and evolving forms, effective archival finding aids share certain characteristics both in the information they convey and the ways in which the information is presented and retrieved.

General characteristics

Effective finding aids successfully assist researchers in locating needed historical materials and promote extensive and creative use of records across many scholarly disciplines and for multiple purposes. They are designed for quick reference and rapid comprehension, regardless of the complexity of the materials they describe. They are easy to use without an archivist's assistance and provide sufficient information to suggest the scope of the materials without irrelevant detail. They are written in clear understandable language devoid of jargon.

Essential data

To be useful, finding aids must have sufficient information to ensure that a researcher can understand what they are seeing and locate where the materials are maintained. At a minimum, all finding aids should adhere to the mandatory requirements of Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). This means that the following elements should be part of, or easily accessible from, each description that appears in the finding aid, irrespective of the level of description or the type of finding aid in which it appears.

  • Reference Code
  • Name and Location of Repository
  • Title
  • Date
  • Extent
  • Name of Creator(s)
  • Scope and Content
  • System of Arrangement
  • Conditions Governing Access
  • Languages and Scripts of the Material

Traditionally, some of this information (e.g., name and location of repository) has been placed in an introductory section where it is easily accessible but not incorporated into each individual description. In designing finding aids for online display, extra care is needed to ensure that researchers can easily find this information, given that they often "land" in the middle of a finding aid from a search engine rather than starting from the beginning.


Outstanding content begins with descriptions of the archival materials that are clear, concise and well-written, with sufficient context provided to make the meaning and relevance of each description comprehensible to the researcher. For descriptions of items, "sufficient context" may be as simple as being able to easily see where the item fits within a folder or series; for a collection or record group description, context may include short biographical sketches or institutional histories containing information directly related to the papers and records. Unexplained codes, acronyms, control numbers, and shelf lists are likely to make a finding aid difficult to use and ordinarily should be omitted.

It should also be clear that the writer has consulted standards specific to the format of the materials being described and the medium of publication. Special consideration, for instance, should be given to description of audiovisual materials, maps, works of art, and digital objects. When both feasible and appropriate, finding aids presented in a digital medium (e.g., through a website or online catalog) should incorporate standards such as EAD, MARC, Dublin Core, etc.

In addition to the descriptions themselves, finding aids with outstanding content will often include a number of research tools to assist those consulting the finding aid without the aid of an archivist, such as "help pages" that define what a finding aid is and answer FAQs, glossaries of archival terms used in the finding aid, and lists of, or links to, related collections. Increasingly, they will also include document reproductions, or links to reproductions, for all or part of the materials described.

Finally, judges may consider whether the materials described have particular research significance and/or bring disparate materials together in a unique way that increases public access to, and understanding of, significant aspects of our cultural heritage.


Well-designed finding aids have a clear and pleasing visual appearance, with elements that make it easy to navigate and search. Use of appropriate tools is critical, for poor layout and confusing design will detract from a finding aid's effectiveness. The tools available vary with the medium: those that work for print finding aids do not necessarily work for those online and vice versa. Finding aids created for print and placed online without any modification will be at a serious disadvantage, as they are not formatted for the screen and tend not to make optimal use of available online navigation and search tools.

Good design begins with well-formatted pages. The information on each page, whether a print page or a web page, should be clear, visually pleasing, and easy to navigate. Font or type should be chosen with an eye toward legibility, while layout should emphasize key pieces of information without looking cramped. Elements such as indentations, underlining, spacing, print size, and whitespace, properly employed, make finding aids easier to use and comprehend. Additionally, text and other elements will be arranged to accommodate the specific dimensions of page or screen, depending upon where the finding aid is being presented.

Long blocks of text generally not read by researchers will be avoided, with additional care taken in online finding aids where researchers would need to scroll. Online finding aids for all but the smallest collections will consist of more than one web page, as endless scrolling is generally considered cumbersome.

In addition, it will be easy to navigate within the finding aid. Online finding aids will have effective and efficient menus and scrollbars, with specific tools that help the researcher quickly navigate to important information or useful tools (e.g., a biographical note on the creator, repository information). They will additionally be designed with tools that allow the researcher to easily see and/or link to contextual elements and move between different parts of the finding aid. For print finding aids, tables of contents, prominent organizational divisions, clear numbering systems, and informative headers or footers make substantial contributions to the usefulness of finding aids.

Exceptional finding aids will also employ tools to make it easier for researchers to quickly search and find the information that they need. Online finding aids might have search mechanisms that not only allow the researcher to type in a search term, but different means to refine or narrow their search, search across collections, or link to outside search mechanisms. Print finding aids might include cross-references or indices to notable people, places and subjects.

For online finding aids, the judges may additionally consider technological proficiency; that is, whether advanced features of web design have been employed. These include things such as multimedia and Web 2.0 technologies.


The desire to "do better" is often an element of the very best finding aids. Maybe someone has come across a good idea at a conference, in a paper or online, and has successfully adapted it to their project. Or maybe someone has invented an entirely new way to meet some of the challenges being presented by changes in processing procedures and the increasing demand for online access. Innovations can be small or large, new to the institution or new to the profession, but in all cases, judges wish to recognize those things which are moving institutions and the profession forward.

Successful innovations will be thoughtfully carried out, designed to meet a particular need, and will not detract from either the content or design of the finding aid. As some innovations - particularly institutional adaptations of more broadly used standards and techniques - may not be readily apparent to the judges, anything that is "new" in your finding aid should be specifically addressed in the nomination letter and/or supporting documentation.


Finding aids are essential and effective tools to convey information about archival materials to users. In producing finding aids, archivists adapt accepted techniques to new situations. Both traditional approaches and new ideas are necessary for the success of this process. The preparation of each finding aid thus is a creative challenge and one with enormous professional rewards.

"Characteristics of Successful Finding Aids" comprises a substantial revision to "Findings on Finding Aids", created by the 1987 Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC) Finding Aid Awards Committee and updated by the 1999 Committee. This revision was completed in 2011.

Finding Aid Awards are given annually at MARAC's spring meeting. The top award will receive the designation as the Frederic M. Miller Finding Aids Award. MARAC notes with particular appreciation the Marjorie Cramer memorial fund, the income from which is used to bring attention to the accomplishments of award winners. Any recent finding aid of a repository located in the Mid-Atlantic region is eligible for consideration. The Committee views each finding aid as an important archival achievement and is grateful for the opportunity to review those submitted for awards.

Information last updated 10/31/2011.