Feeling Out Finding Aids

I've now spent five afternoons over the last five weeks volunteering my time at the local NARA branch. The bulk of my work has focused on developing user-friendly finding aids for patron use. For the benefit of my memory, here's a recap of some of the things I have done in creating these items.

When I first began the project, I was given a copy of a finding aid that had already been developed that was considered to be the ideal final product. From this, I created a spreadsheet that displayed an information "crosswalk" between the two major primary sources of data, ARC records and accessions records, and the desired end product. The crosswalk enabled me to understand all of the different ways that the same information is represented among the different sources and to communicate these relationships quickly and effectively, should anyone else need to create finding aids. Next, I created a Microsoft Word Template to ensure that formatting and layout would be consistent for all of the products.

Each finding aid contains more information than any one of the component sources of information from which they are created. The National Archives divides records among hundreds of "Record Groups" (RG) that are based upon government agencies, commissions, or other formal bodies. Looking through the list sequentially gives the impression of a semi-chronological subject listing about US Government operations and history. I create a finding aid for each RG that the regional branch carries. The first page lists the RG number and title. Given the government agencies often undergo reassignment, name changes, dissolution, and transfer, each RG may contain many sub-agencies, often with different regional or functional offices underneath them. Each agency or sub-agency that has records at the region has a separate descriptive page within the finding aid that describes the function and history of the agency, followed by sections for each series for that agency. Series is as it sounds -- a grouping of records as they were originally maintained by the agency in question. each series has a descriptive sheet with scope and content note, inclusive dates, geographic and subject references, extent and location, and arrangement notes. The series sheet is a cover sheet to a box or folder inventory that describes in more detail what is included in the fonds.

As I mentioned in my previous post, there are a number of information sources from which I assemble the finding aids:

ARC Database Records: I have found that these records, if they exist, comprise the most accurate and up-to-date description of each series. For each of the RGs that I have processed so far, there has been an ARC record that I have used to find most of the data for the agency and series sheets.

Printed and Online Indexes: For the agency and sub-agency history, especially originating and successor agency descriptions, I have used indexes published by NARA, as they are the most authoritative references available for such information.

Internal Databases: I have a copy of a database table that lists a great deal of internal inventory information. Anything that I have not found in the ARC record can usually be found here, especially the shelf locations and extent information.

Existing Inventories: Most of the RGs have already been inventoried and have Word documents containing these inventories. I have used these to create the box/Folder listings.

Accession Records: In some cases, however, no inventories exist. For these, I have had to use the accession records and any annotations made by the region to generate a box listing. In one case, I was brought into the stacks to verify the extent and arrangement represented by a very old accession record, and I expect that I will have to do this again many times as I progress through the project.

Through all of this, I am getting a full grasp on how information is generated and flows through the regional branch which I think will serve me well as I move toward description and records processing.