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.

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!


Glenn L. Wallace Papers, 1930-1970, MS#31 [Revised Finding Aid]
Nephew of Foy E. Wallace, Glenn L. Wallace was born in 1907. He married Leola Duckworth. He was baptized by E.S. Fitzgerald in 1923. He began his preaching career in Abilene, Texas in 1925. Wallace attended Abilene Christian College where he received his B.A. degree. He also attended Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. He worked with churches in Kansas, Texas, and California, eventually moving back to Abilene in 1946 where he began working with the College Church of Christ. He was a regular contributor to Christian Worker, Gospel Advocate, and Firm Foundation. He did a great deal of evangelist work through the years working mostly in the midwest states of Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas. He also did a six-month effort in the British Isles establishing and settling works there in progress. This collection contains papers from Glenn L. Wallace. The collection contains information about Herald of Truth, sermons, notes, lessons, articles, manuscripts, notebooks, membership lists, funeral sermons and other papers.

Henry Walker Papers, 1957-1976, MS#33 [Revised Finding Aid]
Henry Alexander Walker was born April 7, 1923 in Hico, Texas, to Floyd Edgar Walker and Effie Luetta Scales. Walker was married to Dorothy Marie Sims (1927-2015) on September 13, 1942, until their divorce in 1955. He later married Bonnie McGhee (1923-2013). Walker served as a minister and preacher in the Churches of Christ. Walker died at age 68 in Abilene, Texas, on December 8, 1991. He is buried in the Johnsonville Cemetery in Johnsonville, Texas. These papers include a collection of studies on baptism and the New Testament church and copies of the San Marcos Sounder.

William Everett Ferguson Papers, 1941-2014, MS#78 [Revised Finding Aid]
The Ferguson papers consists primarily of over 9600 color slides taken by Dr. William Everett Ferguson while on trips to study the antiquities of Europe, Israel, Turkey, Greece and Egypt. He photographed museum artifacts such as coins, sculptures, and portrait busts depicting the art and objects of ancient civilizations and early Christianity. Also included are slides of buildings related to the history of these early civilizations and the beginnings and development of Christianity. Images include those of early Christian churches, basilicas and cathedrals as well as images of modern and ancient cities and archaeological sites in Israel, Turkey, Greece, ancient Rome, and throughout Europe. The objects photographed are from exhibits at the British Museum, the Ashmolean, the Louvre and other prominent museums of Europe and the Mediterranean countries. These slides document both Dr. Ferguson’s travels and his pedagogy because he used them as visual aids to his lectures on ancient world history and religion and the development and art and symbolism of early Christianity through the Middle Ages. The full collection was digitized in 2015 by Simon Summers and is available online at https://digitalcommons.acu.edu/ferguson_photos/.

Jedburgh Abbey – Scotland from So. Apr ’93. Founded 1118. Built 1140-1220. Work on choir began 1140.
From the William Everett Ferguson Papers, Center for Restoration Studies MS#78.

Charles Ready Nichol Papers, 1926-1961, MS#345 [Revised Finding Aid]
Charles Ready Nichol was a Church of Christ minister, debater, and writer. He was born 26 March 1876 near Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He was educated at the Nashville Bible School, Southwest Kentucky College, Vanderbilt University, and Transylvania University. He married Harriet “Hattie” Thompson Helm in 1896. He began preaching in Woodbury, Tennessee in 1891 and continued his work in numerous other places, often holding protracted meetings. He is perhaps best known for his work with R. L. Whiteside in producing the multi-volume series of Sound Doctrine books. These remain in print and were widely used in Bible classes in Churches of Christ. Nichol often wrote for church papers such as Gospel Advocate and Firm Foundation. He wrote 21 books and in 1948 received an honorary doctor’s degree from Abilene Christian College. Nichol died in 1961 and was buried in the Clifton Cemetery in Clifton, Texas. These papers includes notes, charts, newspaper clippings, debate materials, and photographs from Charles Ready Nichol.

Bonnie Deal Packer Papers, 1918-1920, MS#369 [Revised Finding Aid
Bonnie Deal Packer was born March 10, 1900. She was a student at Abilene Christian College (1918-1920), and she married Napolean Clinton Packer on February 25, 1922. She died on August 26, 1988. This collection includes two scrapbooks and photographs from Bonnie Deal Packer’s time as a student at Abilene Christian College (1918-1920).

From the Bonnie Deal Packer Papers, 1918-1920. Center for Restoration Studies MS#369.


Stay tuned for more installments of Finding Aid Round Ups!

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!