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USP 166: History of San Diego: Using Archival Collections

What is a Finding Aid?

Manuscript and archive collections gather unpublished, primary source materials, typically created by either an individual or an organization.They may contain letters, diaries, photographs, official correspondence, reports, legal documents, artwork, audio and video files, and more, and cover a time range from the early history of the city to the present day, in some topic areas. The materials are stored in file folders within archival boxes. Because the arrangement is quite different from how a library stores published materials like books and periodicals, it can be intimidating to think about delving into these collections, but archivists have created ways to learn about the contents of these rich collections.

Here at UC San Diego our collections have a general description in the libraries' online catalog (Roger) so the best place to start is with a search in Roger. If we have manuscript and archive collections related to your topic area, you should come across a record when doing your keyoword or subject searches in Roger. The record gives an overview of the collection, and also has a link to a more thorough description of the contents of the collection, called a Finding Aid. Here's an example of a finding for a relatively small manuscript collection, the Morse Family Papers.

Finding Aids may vary in specificity depending on the nature and size of the collection, but each is designed to provide enough description so that a researcher is able to access the contents of the collection. The finding aid serves a similar function as an index and table of contents does in published works. It may not tell you every detail of what is covered in the collection, but it should give you an idea of which boxes and folders may contain the primary sources useful for your research.

Researching in Manuscript and Archive collections is a time intensive processes and often involves some level of trial and error. It will serve you well to spend time looking at the finding aid in advance of your visit to the reading room, and allow yourself plenty of time for the staff to pull the materials, and for you to browse through the contents of the folders.That said, Special Collections staff are available during our open hours to help you navigate these collections, so feel free to come in for assistance! We're open Monday - Friday 9-5. We also open until 7pm on Wednesdays while classes are in session.

More on Manuscripts and Archives at UCSD

Our collections are here for you and we look forward to you researching with us. Please be aware that because of the rare or unique nature of the materials in these collections, there are restrictions or limitations on how they may be used. They are stored in a secure area for protection against theft and at temperature, light, and humidity levels that will help preserve the materials for future generations of researchers. Because of copyright restrictions and to limit damage to the materials, there are limits on photocopying. Researchers may only use pencil (no pen) for note taking, although you are welcome to bring a laptop into the reading room. Read on for all our rules and procedures...

Subject Guide

Heather Smedberg's picture
Heather Smedberg
Special Collections & Archives

Geisel Library Building