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What is a Finding Aid?: How to Read a Finding Aid

Learn more about how to use and navigate a finding aid in order to find research material.

What is a Finding Aid?

A finding aid is a document that provides descriptive information about archival collections and their contents. Researchers use finding aids to:

  • Help determine if a collection has material that is relevant to their research needs
  • Facilitate discovery of archival material and primary sources
  • Gain access to and understand materials within a collection

This guide will provide details about how a finding aid is organized, where you can locate CSUDH Gerth Archives and Special Collections finding aids, and will answer some commonly asked questions when reading a finding aid. Download a sample finding aid below. 

Who, What, When, Where?

Who What

Question: Who is responsible for the collection?

Answer: The Creator field tells you the person, family, or organization that created, produced, or formed the collection. Acquisition Information tells you how the archives received the material, and sometimes provides information about the person(s) who were in possession of the material prior to the  archives. 

Question: Does this collection contain any information about people or organizations? 

Answer: If the collection has material about a person, family, or organization you can check the Collection Title, Abstract, and Biography or History note to learn about the person(s) and if the collection contains any information about them. You can also check the Inventory if you are looking for a person who you think may be mentioned in the collection, but is not a major contributor. 

Question: What types of material is represented?

Answer: You can check the Scope and Content Note and Abstract if you are curious about the material types and formats represented in the collection. Common archival material types are memos, letters, notes, photographs, audio and video recordings, and reports.

Question: What is in the collection? 

Answer: For information about what is in the collection check both the Scope and Content Note and Abstract which will provide an overview about what is in the collection including any significant or noteworthy aspects of the collection. Also, the Inventory provides a listing of the material in the entire collection typically at folder-level so be sure to check the inventory if you are looking for something specific. 


When Where

Question: When was the material in this collection created?

Answer: To find information about when the material was created check the Dates field. The Bulk Dates field refers to the dates in which the majority of the material was created. Not all collections will have bulk dates listed.

Question: When was the collection organized and when was the finding aid created?

Answer: If you look under Processing Information and Finding Aid preparation it will tell you who processed the collection, and who wrote the finding aid, as well as when the collection was processed and when the finding aid was created. 

Question: Where can I find material?                                                           

Answer: In the Inventory section of a finding aid, there is a spot for box and folder information along with information about what is in each folder.  Once you have determined what material you are looking to view, you can determine its location by its box and folder designation.                                                                                            

Question: Where is this collection from?

Answer: You can find information about where the collection is from by referring to the Acquisition Information which can tell you where the collection was located prior to CSUDH Archives. Also, you can check Indexing Terms for Geographic Areas which can provide information about locations mentioned in the material within the collection. 

Question: Where is this collection located? 

Answer: Check under Repository to find information about where the collection is physically located.




Question: How are collections organized? 

Answer: To find out information about how the collection is organized, check the Arrangement section. Most collections are arranged by subject or alphabetically.

Question: How do I access a collection?

Answer: Before coming into the archives, make sure to check the Access and Publication Rights sections of the finding aid. These sections will tell you if there are any restrictions placed on the materials which could prevent you from viewing it. 

Once you are ready, you can make an appointment or come in during our walk-in hours: Monday-Friday, 9-4:30. The CSUDH Gerth Archives and Special Collections is located on Library South, Fifth Floor Room 5039. 

Question: How do I view items remotely? Do I have to visit the archives to have access to all the materials?

Answer: Most of our materials are only available to view on-site. The archives does have digital copies available for some of our collections through our CSUDH Historical Digital Collections website. These records can be accessed without having to physically come into the archives. 

Question: How do I locate finding aids? 

Answer: Finding Aids are available through the Online Archive of California (OAC). For a brief tutorial on how to use and navigate the OAC, please click on the "OAC" tab located at the top of this box.


The Online Archive of California (OAC) provides free access to collection guides (finding aids) from over 200 contributing institutions such as libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums that are located in California.

The OAC allows you to browse by institutions, collection, or to keyword search for people, places, subjects, and collection titles. If you want to learn more about the OAC, or need help check under the "About OAC" and "Help" sections located on the OAC's homepage. 


OAC Front Page

If you would like to view all the finding aids available for CSUDH Archives, choose "browse institutions" and scroll down to "California State University, Dominguez Hills", or click here. The CSUDH Archives has two repositories: California State University; and Archives and Special Collections. All finding aids related to CSU will be in the California State University repository, while all collections related to the CSUDH University archives, local history, and other collections not related to CSU will be in the Archives and Special Collections repository.


How to Keyword Search and View Finding Aids in OAC

Creating a keyword search will yield results for all collections and any items that contain the keyword(s).

If your search yields too many results, you can choose to limit your search by institution or date using the options on the right-hand side of the page.

OAC Search Results


Once you have selected the collection you would like to learn more about, you can choose to view the full finding aid by either PDF or HTML format.

Lynn Shaw OAC Finding Aid



The "Collection Overview" will provide a description (abstract) and background (biography or historical note) about the collection.

Lynn Shaw Collection finding aid                                              

Use the "search this collection" function to create a keyword search limited to the collection.

You can also choose to view parts of the collection by limiting it to headings located on the right-hand side menu.


Lynn Shaw Collection Finding Aid

If you would like more assistance with reading finding aids or using OAC, please contact the Gerth Archives and Special Collections,, (310) 243-3895