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I'm Jennifer, and I'm an Occasional Genealogist... sort of. For over ten years I've been a professional genealogist. I started researching my own family nearly 30 years ago. Like many of you, I started as an Occasional Genealogist. I had to squeeze research in while in school and while working full-time. Then I got my first genealogy job and for awhile, it was genealogy all the time. Now I have two kids. I do other people's genealogy constantly but my own? Coming up with ways to do great genealogy, despite all the interruptions, is now mandatory.

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Finding Aids vs. Library Catalogs

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day and I recently learned about a new finding aid that is appropriate to share today.

Last week Upfront with NGS shared a notice they had received about the newly released online inventory of the International Tracing Service (ITS). You can read the post (with the link to the inventory), here.

Realize this is a finding aid, not online records. If you haven't used finding aids, it's like a library catalog for a repository collection, sort of.
Do you know what a finding aid is? How can it help your genealogy research?

Some finding aids are incredibly in-depth, allowing you to identify exactly the record you want to access. Some are not even as detailed as a traditional book library catalog. There may be a catalog for the repository and finding aids, just a catalog, or just finding aids. It depends on the repository.

The level of details given in a finding aid depends on the collection and the creator and every variable that affects those two aspects. You will see in the announcement published on the link above, that it mentions "preliminary or superficial indexing." That means someone has looked at the material. The "material" could be the boxes the records are in, not the actual contents.

Where Do Finding Aids Come From?

In general, here's what has to happen to any collection.


A repository receives a collection. They have to somehow keep track of what they receive. I imagine this is more likely to be done nowadays but I know from conversations with archivists and librarians that there are plenty of examples where collections have been "lost" in the holdings of a repository in the past.

By lost I mean it was placed on a storage shelf and there was no way to know it was there. Later, the staff inventoried the shelves/stacks and realized they had it.

I mention this because genealogists aren't just using collections recently received. We use everything. Just because a repository follows certain procedures today, doesn't mean you can retroactively apply that to older collections.

Preliminary Indexing

The second step is where the repository records they have the collection. This first recording is the preliminary indexing or initial cataloging (if the repository has a catalog). Today it probably happens when a collection is received but it could be when the repository makes an effort to inventory their holdings.

This may not be what some repositories call "preliminary indexing." It will depend on the repository. Some repositories will have a very organized system and set names for the stages.

I know when I hear "indexing" I think of someone going through a collection to see what is in it like you would go through a book to index names. Keep in mind a collection might be a box with file folders in it so an index might start by listing the titles of each folder.

However, imagine a collection with 100 boxes each with different kinds of materials in it. A preliminary index for this might be the names of the boxes, as received. In either case, what if the labels on the folders or boxes are a string of numbers?

This is fairly different from a book library (like your local public library). Think of the library catalogs you've used. They have pretty standard information about the books. Today, it's possible to get this information by scanning the bar code printed on the book. Even if that isn't done, it's fairly simple to know you'll want the title of the book, author, and (hopefully) publication information. Physical description is also often included and maybe even a description of the contents.

This catalog information is usually the preliminary and final indexing in a standard book library. You don't expect to find a name index in a library catalog. It's possible a finding aid could contain a name index, it's not a catalog.

Here's a big difference with a "repository" and particularly collections that require a finding aid. They can contain almost anything. Genealogists often use paper but they can be objects, as well. How do you catalog or index, those?

That's why you need a finding aid and that's exactly the problem a cataloger and/or finding aid creator has to deal with (the creator of a finding aid might not be the cataloger). All different types of items have to be described so patrons can access them.

Cataloging or indexing or creating a finding aid for a repository collection can be very complicated so it may happen at a superficial level for the "preliminary" stage. A good repository will probably create a descriptive name for a collection if it doesn't come with one. This may or may not be helpful to genealogists, but it's a place to start.

The preliminary stage may be as descriptive as a library catalog entry. The collection name and donor may be recorded and the physical description listed. This is similar to a book catalog entry. It's far less helpful, particularly for larger collections. You still don't really know what is contained in the collection based only on the collection name and donor, and that's why a finding aid is necessary.

Conservation and/or Organization

There may be another stage (or two) after a collection is received. At a repository (and even possibly a book library), a collection may need conservation or organizing. Creating a finding aid can take place along this process as the repository keeps track of what it finds in the collection.

So when a collection comes in they might record it contains six boxes of 1 cubic foot each. They will most likely label the collection (which could mean placing it in a different container). The collection might be marked for conservation and it won't be touched until that happens. In some cases, a collection could be marked for conservation but still be available to patrons.

The finding aid information may be enhanced during conservation (since each item is being handled, anyway) or it might have to wait until conservation is complete. There may also need to be organization within the collection.


Hopefully a collection becomes accessible at this point, it's "released" so it can be requested. It's possible a collection won't be released until the "preliminary" information that was recorded is enhanced. That's up to the repository.

What about creating a finding aid?

Creating a finding aid isn't a given, in general. Some repositories might always create a finding aid. Some may only ensure there is a catalog entry. There has to be a way for patrons to know a collection exists but that's the minimum needed.

If a finding aid will be created, it might not be all at once. With a complicated or large collection, someone may go through at some point to try and improve the preliminary information (either start a finding aid or enhance it depending on what the preliminary information is). This improvement could happen several times.

Where do finding aids come from? Staff or volunteers at the repository have to create them based on the contents of a collection. A finding aid should be more informative than a basic catalog entry but that usually means an extra step has to be taken to create them. Not every collection in a repository may have a finding aid or the repository may have one finding aid for their entire holdings. There's no detailed answer to "where do they come from?"

What to Expect

Only one of the four stages listed above guaranteed finding aid or cataloging information (the preliminary indexing). So what can you expect when you use a finding aid?


Genealogists often use finding aids at repositories who's focus is not genealogical research. Finding aids will be designed to help the target patronage. Even if this is historians, the focus can be different than most genealogists want (historians often don't need finding aids focusing on common individuals which is what genealogists are all about).

Even if the repository does cater to genealogists, that doesn't mean the organizational structure of records will. Many "archives" that are popular with genealogists will exist to serve a fellow governmental agency. Even if the bulk of their users are genealogists or historians, the archive may have to use organizational structures for their intended audience.

This may result in additional finding aids being created (such as a name index in addition to an original numerical index). However, creating detailed finding aids takes time. All finding aids are subject to constraints specific to the collection and the repository. They are also subject to the rules of the repository and possibly to the quirks of the creator.

Hopefully, you get the idea that finding aids don't just differ from repository to repository but from collection to collection and even within a collection.

Using Finding Aids

The best way to learn to use finding aids is to use them. They vary so much there aren't hard and fast rules you can learn.

Repositories that put their finding aids online are fabulous. This gives you time to read through them without wasting your on-site research time. Always check if finding aids are online when planning a research trip. If you have questions, you can contact the repository ahead of time or at least prepare your questions for your visit.

Some repositories prefer you contact them ahead of time and some prefer in-person questions. Check their website for information, see if you can ask other genealogists that have used the repository, or call and ask.


If you will use a collection again, supplement the official finding aid with your own notes (or create a personal finding aid if there's only a catalog entry). You can customize this to your needs and it can be just for you.

Consider spending time just for this purpose if you can easily use the collection again OR if you will have to hire someone to access additional material. If your research time isn't sufficient to finish what you need to do, it may be more cost efficient to review the full collection instead of partially completing research. This is something to consider but base your decision on your specific situation.

If you weren't familiar with finding aids before, I hope you understand they aren't just another catalog. If you've used finding aids and it was very similar to a library catalog, you'll find different types of finding aids exist, as well.

Don't be intimidated by finding aids. If nothing else, they indicate the collection is meant to be used. They can be your key to unlock the treasure hidden in a repository collection.