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Kill the Finding Aid! Give the Public the Ability to Really Search our History

At HistoryIT we believe that the information in archives is of great interest to broad groups of the public, not just professional researchers.

Yes, scholars know how to navigate archives in various states. They understand how to read finding aids that provide cursory high level or container information. They have the time and training necessary to use the finding aid to navigate a sea of material. The public has no patience for this, or much familiarity with how to do so. But they have much to learn and understand from engaging with these historical materials, and they want to engage.

Many, many people love history. And they love not only the fully curated interpretations of the materials. They also love the primary sources. Look at popular television shows that explore objects hidden away in storage sheds or flea markets. Look at the wild success of! This company provides subscribers with a meaningful interface to search primary source materials, in this case genealogy records. Our history is out there…. And the public is interested in exploring it. We need to respond by building searchable digital archives that allow them to do so.

People who work in and with archives need to accept that the traditional finding aid is dead. Or at least that that the purpose it serves is an extremely limited one. For the 99.8 percent of the population that isn’t a librarian or professional researcher, a “finding aid” is merely a list of folder and box names. While the degree of descriptive information varies greatly among finding aids, the general standard is to list each container and sub-container, like a box and a folder, along with a general summary of its contents and related subject matter. Often, this is as vague as “Correspondence, A-F, June 1962.” More specific information is provided in some instances, perhaps listing several of the prominent correspondents. Either way, this approach – as is true for the entire concept of the finding aid – only applies if the person reading a finding aid knows exactly what she is looking for, which of the various general descriptions might apply, and has the time to review the actual contents to see what is useful. A finding aid does not list, for example, every single letter in a folder, with correspondents and the date and subject matter discussed. Many archivists scoff at the idea that such a detailed listing is necessary, but that’s precisely what would grab the interest of most readers. The meaningful content – the substance that a casual reader might find compelling – is nowhere to be found in a finding aid, and therefore remains hidden to all but the most intrepid researcher.

The shot below shows a section from the finding aid to former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley’s collection. This guide is helpful if you have a week to explore the materials within, say “Campaign [Cook County Clerk] Correspondence, 1954,” but means nothing to the sixth grader writing a report about how Mayor Daley ran his first campaign, nor does it help the Chicago citizen who is wondering whether his father was one of Daley’s early supporters.


In order to have any particular item findable by an online search – whether that be Google or a specific library’s search database – it must contain item-level information that is truly searchable. This is the only way that digital collections can be effective. Many institutions have focused their digitization plans on “digitizing the finding aid.” This approach only creates the same limited usefulness, but in an online environment. Even worse, it allows institutions to believe that they have truly embarked on a digitization plan that reaches out to the public. If we really want to build digital archives that the general public can explore, we must ditch the finding aid as our central mechanism and embrace detailed, item-level descriptive subject tagging with terms that the general public searches.

Any institution that fails to do this must admit the truth of their approach, that they are only “digitizing” their materials for the use of professional researchers and are not actually supporting their mission to make information available to the public.

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