Ask the archivist: What is a finding aid?

A researcher asks this question by email:

“Can you explain what a Finding Aid is, and if I would be able to see anything from these files?” 

Thank you for this question, I appreciate the opportunity to clarify these terms and concepts.  A finding aid is a guide to a collection of archival materials.  Archival materials are usually defined as unique items created by a person or an entity in the course of doing what they do. Unique is defined as one-of-a-kind, especially when referring to the personal papers of a person or family.  Mass-produced materials like books or periodicals are usually not included in the strict definition of ‘archives.’  Likewise, artifacts are not usually thought of as archival, either.  So in this sense an archive is neither a library nor a museum, strictly speaking.

Letter of Recommendation for both G.W. Varner and A.V. Varner signed by the entire congregation. George Washington Varner Papers, Center for Restoration Studies Manuscripts #295

Archival materials are those materials created by a person or entity in the course of doing something.  For example, a preacher preaches sermons and so creates handwritten study notes, or typed notes, or word-processed notes in a digital file, or drafts outlines or full manuscripts of the sermons, plus bulletin articles, correspondence, and the like.  A business or an organization (such as a church) does the same thing: they print bulletins or newsletters, engage in contracts, publish reports, issue directories or membership lists, or create recordings of their activities in some form or fashion.  We can’t–and shouldn’t– save everything, but that is a post for another day.

An archival collection then is the assembly of those materials, and we make every attempt to preserve them in the order left by their creator because that order reflects their use and conveys meaning about their use.  For example, we would not rearrange a preacher’s topical sermon notes and place them into an arbitrary organizational scheme (even such as putting them in order of the books of the Bible) because that disrupts their created order.  Likewise, we would not rearrange a set of sermon notes from biblical-book order to create a chronological order.  Nor would we rearrange correspondence originally filed by date into a new arrangement by the last name of the correspondent.  The point here is that the physical order matters and tells us something.  In short, we try to leave it alone and describe it as-is as far as possible because the order should be allowed to speak for itself.  In some cases we receive items in no order, and we have to impose an order otherwise the collection is so disorganized it is not at all useful.  In those cases, we document both the initial disarray and our choices in bringing order to the chaos.

A finding aid describes the materials so a user determine 1) what is in the collection, and 2) where in the collection it is located.  Without this critical information, researching in a collection is unnecessarily time-consuming and difficult.

Compiling a finding aid is itself time-consuming and can be difficult (especially if materials come to us in no order whatsoever), but that is part of what we do.  A finding aid could be very specific, even down to the item level.  Compiling his kind of description is very tedious and time-consuming, and for that reason we almost never use it.  However, these are extraordinarily helpful for researchers and some collections merit this attention.

On the other end of the spectrum, finding aids could simply describe a collection at the broadest possible level: the collection level.  For example, the finding aid could simply say, the Doe Family Papers contain materials from and about the Doe Family, in 5 boxes.  That is a legitimate (albeit super-basic) finding aid.  It is up to the researcher then to ask questions and dig deeper.  If they are interested, they can explore further.  The downside is that a researcher will have to dig, sometimes deeply, before discovering something useful, or realizing the collection does not contain information relevant to their needs.

These two examples are polar opposites and are really rather simplistic when it comes to actual practice. Sometimes a one-size-fits-all approach works well…except when it doesn’t.  A major goal of archival description is to render collections accessible and useful.  Some collections are best served by hybrid approaches to arrangement and description.  In each case we balance specificity against efficiency.  In practice we might describe the components of a collection differently.  We might say, OK, sermons in boxes 1-2, in biblical-book order, correspondence in box 3, and then list all the names of the correspondents.  That strikes a fair balance because if a researcher is looking for sermons on Psalms, they can find them easily enough, and if they are looking for John Doe letters, they can easily determine if the collection has any.  And we do not need to list every sermon, or describe every letter.

The benefit here is that more collections get some description, albeit less detailed, rather than one collection getting an item-level finding aid and no other collection receiving much description at all.  After all, we have over 500 collections so we must draw a line somewhere; we try to achieve folder-level specificity if at all possible because it really helps the researchers while allowing us to keep describing all of our collections (and new ones are coming in regularly).  Researchers can search the finding aid, locate the folder they are interested in, and go from there without having to search through boxes of un-described materials.  That is an ideal we aim for.  In some cases we are less specific simply because we have not yet gotten to those collections…yet.  And we can always come back to collections and beef up the description.

A finding aid, then is a guide to an archival collection.  It takes its shape from the collection itself, and describes both the materials and their arrangement in a manner that allows researchers to determine the contents of the collection, and their location reliably, efficiently, and effectively.

In terms of seeing the collection, you are welcome to visit in person.  If you would like, I can select a few items from the collection to scan and send you.  Or look over the list of folders in the online description and direct my attention to the one or two that look most interesting to you.

Thank you again for your question.

Findings aids for our collections are available online.

Traveling with Alexander Campbell to Glasgow: Part 2 – The Interruption

By Carisse Mickey Berryhill, PhD

Series introduction: Alexander Campbell (1788-1866) was born and grew up in Northern Ireland. In 1807, his father Thomas Campbell (1763-1854), a Presbyterian minister, emigrated from Northern Ireland to western Pennsylvania and sent for the rest of the family to join him in 1808.  Shipwrecked on the western coast of Scotland, the family spent almost a year in Glasgow before joining Thomas in 1809. During that time Alexander studied at the University of Glasgow. In 2019 I set out to visit the places in Ireland and Scotland that are the backdrop for this crucial year in his life. Travel with me as we retrace his journey in three posts: the Homeland, the Interruption, and the University of Glasgow.

Alexander, his mother Jane Corneigle Campbell, and six younger siblings sailed from Londonderry for Philadelphia aboard the Hibernia on October 1, 1808. The younger children were Dorothea, 15; Nancy, 13; Jane, 8; Thomas, 6; Archibald, 4; and Alicia, 2. Jane was 45. Alexander was 20. There were 70 passengers and 12 crew on the ship. From Londonderry the ship sailed northeast a little more than twenty miles through Lough Foyle, a wide body of water that opens into the Atlantic Ocean.

Lough Foyle runs from left to right across the middle of the photo with the hills of Donegal on the other shore and a plowed field in Northern Ireland in the foreground.

Lough Foyle was the channel running northeast from the port of Londonderry to the Atlantic Ocean. This view from Northern Ireland looks northwest across Lough Foyle to County Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland. Londonderry lies to the left, and the Atlantic Ocean to the right.

On Sunday, October 2, The Hibernia passed out into the ocean at McGilligan’s point and paused to anchor off the Inishowen Point.

The grassy hill of McGilligan's point lies in the foreground. In the middle is the opening of Lough Foyle into the Atlantic Ocean. Beyond the mouth of the Foyle is the Inishowen peninsula and the Shrove Lighthouse.

View to the northwest from McGilligan’s Point, Northern Ireland, across Lough Foyle where it opens into the Atlantic ocean. In the distance is the Inishowen Head Lighthouse on the point of County Donegal, Ireland.

On Monday, October 3, the ship sailed west as far as Malin Head, the northwest tip of Ireland. On a clear day, it is easy to see the southwestern islands of Scotland from the coast of Northern Ireland. But toward evening strong winds rose and drove the ship northeast toward the western islands of Scotland about thirty-five miles away.

View from the dramatic north coast of Northern Ireland out to sea with the dim blue shape of the Scottish islands on the horizon about thirty miles away.

The Isle of Islay thirty miles away on the north horizon, across the North Channel, seen from the north coast of County Antrim, Northern Ireland, at the Giant’s Causeway and Causeway Coast World Heritage Site.

The western coast of Scotland consists of islands. The southernmost group, the Inner Hebrides, includes Islay at the south tip of the group and Jura just north of it. Islay is crescent-shaped, almost divided in half by Loch Indaal Bay. The rocky coasts of the islands are treacherous.

Mountainous islands of Islay (left) and Jura (right) seen from a ship approaching from the east.

Westernmost of the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, the mountainous Isles of Islay (left) and Jura (right), lie only about thirty miles north of Northern Ireland. View from a ferry east of the two islands, looking west.

The ship Hibernia ran before the wind all night and near daylight made its way into Loch Indall Bay. That morning, October 4, two local pilots came aboard to warn the captain to move the ship a couple of miles northeast to a safer spot near Bowmore harbor.

The harbor of the village of Bowmore, Islay, with the round Kilarrow Parish Church rising above the houses clustered by the waterside.

The harbor at the village of Bowmore, with the round Kilarrow Parish Church rising above the town. Looking northeast from the pier.

However, the captain opted to stay anchored near rocky Gartbreck point, waiting for favorable winds to continue the voyage. Three more days passed.

On the evening of Friday, October 7, after family worship, Alexander dozed off while reading and dreamed that the ship had struck a rock. He woke with a sense of premonition and warned his family to be prepared for an emergency. He decided not to undress and kept his shoes near his bed. Everyone went to bed. At about ten pm, a gale suddenly struck the anchored ship and pushed it onto the rocks. Water began rushing in the bottom of the ship and the wind threatened to capsize it. The passengers left the flooded bottom of the ship and crowded in terror on the sloping deck. The crew and passengers hacked down the masts to right the ship. It settled on the rock. Sheets of rain and towering waves broke over the terrified travelers. All they could do was pray and wait for daylight. In this crisis, Alexander saw the futility of ambition and remembered the nobility of his father’s ministry. He decided that if he survived, he would devote his life to ministry.

In the morning of October 8, rescuers could not reach the ship from the shore because of the incoming wind and waves, until they signaled to the sailors to tie a rope to an empty cask and let it float to shore. Then the Islay folk attached a rescue boat to be pulled to the ship. Beginning with the women and children, the passengers were shuttled to the shore. Alexander decided to wait for the last boat. So Jane gathered her younger children on a large rock. They huddled there to wait for him.  When he waded ashore about 2 pm, he found them there, wet and numb but all safe. No one on the ship was lost.

View to the west across Lochindaal Bay from a ridge of grey stone spotted with golden lichens.

On a rock ridge like this on the southeast side of Loch Indaal Bay, Jane Corneigle Campbell gathered her children in the tempest that had wrecked their ship on the rocky coast here.

The islanders fed and warmed them. A widow who was also descended from the Campbells of Argyllshire welcomed them into her nearby home until they were warm and dry. Then they went on to the village of Bowmore and found lodging with a family there. Bowmore was a new town. It had been established in 1768 on the Bay by the previous Laird, Daniel Campbell, who had been an effective manager of the island and its products.

A field of white daisies in the foreground, with the village of Bowmore on the far right in the distance. On the horizon are peaks of the island of Jura.

From the shipwreck site on Loch Indaal Bay, the white buildings of the village of Bowmore are visible to the right in the distance. The tall mountains on the horizon are on the Isle of Jura, which lies north of Islay.

Islanders provided carts to help move salvaged baggage from the wreck to a secure location. A local merchant, Hector Simpson, stored the passengers’ salvaged luggage in his Bowmore warehouse. He had been appointed by Laird Walter Campbell, the current owner of the island and a member of Parliament, to supervise the recovery efforts. Alexander went daily back and forth to the wreck site to collect the family’s belongings, with special attention to his and his father’s books.

On Sunday, October 16, Alexander visited an early morning Sunday school for children in Bowmore run by George Fulton, a school teacher who was also an independent evangelical.  Then he attended Presbyterian services at Kilarrow Parish Church, where Rev. McIntosh preached in English in the morning and in Gaelic in the afternoon.

A steep town road lined with houses rises to a white round church with a stone steeple facing the street. Kilarrow Parish Church, 1767

Kilarrow Parish Church (1767) in the village of Bowmore, Islay, UK. Its unusual round shape is accented by white walls and a stone tower facing the harbor. Laird Walter Campbell was buried there in 1816.

In his salvage efforts, Alexander paid special attention to drying his and his father’s books. Laird Campbell noticed his books and learned his name. He invited Alexander to visit his estate, Islay House, where, Richardson says, Alexander “spent many pleasant hours.”

White mansion with more than a dozen chimneys, two storeys, and attic windows below the grey roof. Photograph across a wide green lawn and lane. The main entrance in the center faces to the east side.

Islay House, home of the Campbell Lairds on Islay. It was begun in 1677. In 1808 it was owned by Laird Walter Campbell, who befriended Alexander, and who is buried at the Kilarrow Parish Church in Bowmore. See also the entrance and one of the grand staircases.

The estate lies at the top of Loch Indall Bay and faces south with views of the bay over a spacious lawn and park.

View from Islay House through nine panes of glass south across the estate's lawn toward Lochindaal Bay and the moors of Gearach.

Loch Indall Bay and the Rinns of Islay viewed from Islay House, the former home of Laird Walter  Campbell, who befriended Alexander Campbell. Looking south.

During their three weeks on Islay, the family discussed what to do next. They were reluctant to sail again, especially since the winter storms were soon to come. Alexander wanted to attend Glasgow University where his father had been educated, so they decided to relocate to Glasgow until the next summer.

After a second visit to the Kilarrow Parish Church on October 23, the family was ready to leave for Glasgow. On October 24, Alexander shipped the family baggage on a freight ship from Bowmore to Greenock, a port near Glasgow. Then the family left Bowmore and traveled by wagon ten miles to Port Askaig on the northeast shore of Islay. Alexander followed on foot.

Village of Port Askaig founded 1767. View from dockside toward hotel at left, post office and shop at center, and dock buildings at right.

Port Askaig, from which Campbell family sailed for Glasgow. The little village on the north coast of Islay dates from 1767. It is now one of three ferry ports on the island.

From Port Askaig, their plan was to take a fairly direct route on a “packet boat,” a lighter boat used for mail and passengers, to Tarbert, on the Scottish mainland peninsula of Kintyre, and from there to get another packet to Greenock.

Port Askaig hotel, a two-story white building beside the harbor

This hotel at Port Askaig is where the Campbell family stayed while waiting for the packet boat to Tarbert on Kintyre.

While they waited for the packet boat, Alexander made a day trip on October 26 across the half-mile sound that separates Islay from its mountainous neighbor, Jura. He spent the day hiking and reflecting.

Two green hills of the island of Jura seen across a half-mile channel separating Port Askaig on Islay from Jura to the north..

Mountains of Jura seen from Port Askaig, looking northeast from Islay. The sound between the two islands is only about half a mile wide.

On the morning of October 27th, the awaited packet arrived and the family embarked for Tarbert, where they planned to catch the boat to Greenock. Because of adverse winds, it took the packet ship 24 hours to travel about 23 miles to ArdPatrick, where the ship could make no further progress up the West Loch Tarbert. The Laird Campbell’s family at one of their estates, Ardpatrick house, supplied a large rowboat for the 24 passengers and their baggage.

Laird Campbells white home on a dark shore with sunset colors in the sky

Barely visible at sunset, the large white Laird Campbell Ardpatrick House  faces West Loch Tarbert, UK

Alexander rowed with others for another ten miles northwest to the end of West Loch Tarbert, arriving on Saturday afternoon, October 29th.

West Loch Tarbert looking southwest between green hills of Kintyre on left and Argyll on right.

West Loch Tarbert, looking southwest. Alexander rowed the whole distance seen here and several miles further northeast.

The passengers then made a two-mile trip over land to the port of Tarbert in wagons.  In helping other passengers out of the boat, Alexander fell into the water and was soaked. Nevertheless, he let others go ahead. For several hours he waited alone and chilled with his baggage for a wagon to return and take him to join his family in Tarbert.

The waters of West Loch Tarbert at left end at a hill. To the right, a road winds toward the hill and around it.

The northeast end of West Loch Tarbert. Here the Campbell family unloaded to travel two miles by wagon across the isthmus to the port of Tarbert on East Loch Tarbert.

The following day, Sunday, October 30th, Alexander spent the day in Tarbert in family worship and reading. The next morning they boarded a packet boat from Tarbert Harbor for a 45-mile trip to Greenock.

Tarbert harbor with stone wall in foreground. On the right a hill slopes steeply down to the harbor with village buildings clustered next to the water. At the top of the hill at right is a ruined castle.

Tarbert Harbor on East Loch Tarbert, Kintyre, with Tarbert Castle above the town.

They sailed for eighteen hours until the wind failed them. On the next day, November 1, Alexander went ashore with the other male passengers in a small boat. He walked five miles into Greenock, arranged a place for the family to stay, and returned to get them and their baggage back to their lodgings in Greenock that night.

The port of Greenock lies on the Firth of the Clyde River. A wide river with a blue protective rail and pavement on the right, and mountains across the river.

The Scottish port of Greenock, looking southeast up the Firth of Clyde toward Glasgow, which is about 25 miles away.

On November 2 Alexander made arrangements for his family and all their baggage to take a fly-boat, a small sailing ship, from Greenock to Glasgow on November 4. Then on November 3, he left early and walked twenty-three miles that day to Glasgow, carrying with him letters of introduction from Hector Simpson, the Islay merchant, to William Harley, a manufacturer; from Rev. Mr. McIntosh of the Scots parish church in Bowmore to Rev. Mr. McKenzie of Glasgow; and from the Islay Sunday-school teacher George Fulton to the famous Independent evangelist Greville Ewing. Alexander got a bite to eat, found #4 Carlton Place, and knocked on Greville Ewing’s door.

NEXT: Part 3: Glasgow

Open-Access photographs selected from my trip retracing Alexander’s journey to Glasgow are available for free download at ACU’s Stone-Campbell Teaching Archive for use in teaching. Read more about the Campbell family and Alexander’s life in Memoirs of Alexander Campbell by Robert Richardson (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1868).

Finding Aid Round Up

We’ve been busy writing finding aids for recent acquisitions and revising finding aids for some materials already in our holdings. You can browse all of our archival holdings on DigitalCommons. See something below that piques your interest or could be useful for your research? Get in touch and let us know what you’re thinking about; we’d love to help!


J. W. Roberts Papers, 1946-1972, MS#25 [Revised Finding Aid]
Born in 1918, J W Roberts began preaching in 1938 as a senior in high school. He attended Freed-Hardeman College from 1936-38 and Abilene Christian College from 1940-42 where he received a M.A. in religious education. Preached in Iraan, Texas, 1938-40; Wichita, Kansas, 1942-45; Indianapolis, Indiana 1945-46; and Perrin, Texas. He preached two summers for the Graham Street Church of Christ in Abilene and two summers for Pepperdine University and Great Lakes Christian College. He was Religious Emphasis speaker at Washington State College in 1963 and Texas A&M in 1964. Roberts was director of Graduate Studies for Bible and Religious Education at Abilene Christian College from 1963 until his death in 1973. He was heavily involved in the Boy Scouts of American for more than 20 years and was a deacon for the College (now University) Church of Christ in Abilene. He also served as moderator for Otis Gatewood in a debate in 1942. He wrote or co-wrote multiple books and commentaries. These papers include a collection of seminar notes, correspondence, course syllabi, gnostic library, septuagintisms, trips, commentaries, reports, articles, research, personal papers, and notes from J W Roberts.

William Newton Short Jr. Papers, 1948-1997, MS#27 [Revised Finding Aid]
William Short was born on February 23, 1943 in Southern Rhodesia, Africa. Graduated from Gilbert Rennie School, Lusaka, Africa and moved to the United States in 1961. Received a BSW at Harding University and began Graduate Studies at Abilene Christian College before receiving his Masters in French, German, and Spanish from the University of North Texas. Short obtained his Doctorate in Foreign Languages from Rice University. Short was a Professor of Languages at McMurry University for 27 years, teaching French, German, and Spanish. He was the Chairman of Modern Languages and served as a sponsor of the Makona Social Club for almost 3 decades. He served as a member at Minter Lane Church of Christ for over 20 years where he taught Bible classes. He traveled the world as a missionary and teacher, taking trips with Let’s Start Talking Ministries and led many International Studies Abroad campaigns. These papers include a collection of autobiographical stories from experiences in Africa and America from Bill Short. Written in the 1990s, Short’s recollections mainly include childhood memories from the late 1940s and 1950s.

Tillit Sydney Teddlie Papers, 1885-1987, MS#29 [Revised Finding Aid]
Tillit Sidney Teddlie was a singing school teacher, composer, publisher, and minister of the Church of Christ. Teddlie was educated in Southern Development Normal in Waco, Texas, a school for advanced instruction in theory and harmony. He also attended what is now North Texas State University. He composed his first song in 1906. During his lifetime, Teddlie taught singing schools for 61 years, composed 130 songs, published 14 song books, and served as a full-time minister, including the Johnson Street Church of Christ (1945–1951), Central Church of Christ in Greenville, Texas, and Churches of Christ in Ennis, Sulphur Springs, Lone Oak and Quinlan. For two years he sang only with Foy E. Wallace, Jr. while traveling across the country for gospel meetings. These papers include notes, scripture, and sermon notes.

From the Tillit Sidney Teddlie Papers, 1885-1987. Center for Restoration Studies MS#29.

Homer Lee Terry Papers, 1955-1984, MS#30 [Revised Finding Aid]
Homer Lee Terry was born in 1909 in Lindale, Texas. He graduated with honors from Texas A&M in 1936. He began preaching in 1956. The bulk of his preaching occurred between 1956 and 1958 in rural churches in Texas. He preached his last sermon in 1964. This collection contains some of the sermon and Bible class notes of Homer Lee Terry.

David Edwin Harrell, Jr. Papers, 1923-2017, MS#467 [New Finding Aid]
David Edwin Harrell, Jr., was born on February 22, 1930, in Jacksonville, FL. He received a B.A. (1954) from David Lipscomb College, and an M.A. (1958) and Ph.D. (1962) from Vanderbilt University. Harrell served as a professor of history at numerous American universities (1961-2004), finishing his teaching career at Auburn University (1990- 2004). Additionally, he served as a Fulbright Lecturer in India (1976-1977), and as the Director of the American Studies Research Centre in Hyderabad, India (1993-1995). Harrell is a noted social historian of American religious history. His research interests included the Stone-Campbell Movement, Pentecostal traditions, the southern black and white sectarian tradition, and twentieth century American Christianity. Additionally, he wrote biographies of Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, and Homer Hailey. This collection includes correspondence, presentations, research, and reviews from Harrell’s academic career. Additionally, there are correspondence and reports regarding his work with Churches of Christ.


Stay tuned for more installments of Finding Aid Round Ups!