Coming Soon: Finding Aid Bio Sketches

Most of you reading this probably already know what an archival “finding aid” is, because you make them, use them, or both. But for those who may not be as familiar with them — like my mom (hi, mom!) — I will explain the term a little before just jumping in with it.

The official DACS definition of a finding aid is: “a representation of, or  ameans of access to, archival materials made or received by a repository in the course of establishing administrative or intellectual control over the archival materials.”

It could be a card file, a database or XML file (EAD), or something else, but I for one usually think of the traditional paper finding aid, with an Introduction (basic info like title, dates, amount); Biographical/Historical Sketch (background on who created/collected the “stuff”); Scope and Content Note (slightly more detailed explanation of what’s included with subjects, formats, dates, etc.); and the Container Listing (what’s actually in the boxes and folders? where can I find the “stuff”?).

Manuscript finding aids, Dayton Metro Library

Manuscript finding aids, Dayton Metro Library

If the collection pertains mostly to a person (or people), you write a “Biographical” sketch; if it’s a company/organization, it’s an “Historical” sketch. Subtle distinction. DACS refers to this part of the finding aid as the “Administrative/Biographical History Element.”  (I usually refer to this section as simply the “Bio Sketch,” though, since I am usually working on people-centric collections and let’s face it “Administrative/Biographical History Element” is just too darn long for everyday conversation.)

According to DACS Chapter 10, Administrative/Biographial History,

the purpose of this element is to provide information about the organization(s) or individual(s) associated in some way with the creation, assembly, accumulation, and/or maintenance and use of the unit being described in order to place the material in context and make it better understood…

Earlier on, DACS called the Administrative/Biographical History Element “one of the most significant aspects of the description of the context of creation” (Chapter 2.7).

So, that being said, I like to make sure I do a good job on my Bio Sketches. If you don’t do a good job of presenting to the finding aid user who this person is (although, if they are interested in your finding aid, they probably already have some idea!), then they are not going to understand how all the parts of his/her/their “stuff” fit together.

And odds are, you probably did a pretty decent job researching the person(s) before/during the act of processing (arranging and describing) their materials, because YOU the archivist had to get a good sense of how all the “stuff” fit together in order to do justice in organizing it. Am I right? So it just makes sense to go ahead and put all that stuff you’ve learned about the person into your Bio Sketch, right?

Well, that’s what I try to do, anyway. How much good is it doing only in my head? I could write it down and benefit others, as well. That probably makes it sound like I’m the only one who knows these things about these people. I don’t think that, of course; that would be ridiculously arrogant.

Then again, depending on the “stuff” you have and whether anyone else has ever seen it – you just might be the “only” one who knows that information, if it came from the collection. And odds are, you looked in some secondary sources, and if you didn’t find it there – well, who knows why it wasn’t included, but the point is, it wasn’t, so it may not be widely known.

But anyway, getting back to an explanation of the title of this post: “Coming Soon: Finding Aid Bio Sketches.”

Part of the reason that I started this blog was so that when I find something super-cool at the library/archives where I work, I could share something about it here — on a lovely web site that is adequately crawled by Google and, given a researcher using the right combination of search terms, might actually find something I wrote here, and, by extension, find the relevant library materials that I mentioned. (After all, what good is all this super-cool stuff that we arrange, describe, and preserve, if nobody can find it and use it?)

So, to that end, I will be sharing the biographical sketches that I have written for finding aids. I’ll only be sharing Bio Sketches that I personally wrote. And I shoudl also note that this plan has the support of my supervisor, who has been very supportive of this blog in general. At the bottom of each sketch, I’ll include a note as to the relevant manuscript collection (and a link to the complete finding aid on the library’s web site, where applicable) and where/how to get more information. I plan to add images to the Bio Sketches, too, which should make them even more interesting than the original paper versions (most of which have zero or maybe 1 photo).

Quite frankly, I spent a lot of time working on some of these biographical sketches — most of which, by the way, have footnotes (yippee!) — and I just want to make sure that they can be of as much use as possible. I’ve already done all this work; why not make things easier for the next person researching Howard Forrer Peirce, W. D. Bickham, Thomas O. Lowe, or Horton Howard? And of course, there’s always the hope that somone will find the Bio Sketch and want to come in to the library and learn more about the individual by using the original manuscripts.

So, stay tuned for my finding aid Bio Sketches, which I plan to schedule for periodic “releases,” so that I don’t completely bomb anyone who may be subscribed to this blog. First up: Howard Forrer Peirce.

2 responses to “Coming Soon: Finding Aid Bio Sketches

  1. Pingback: MVAR Recap 8/16/2012 | Glancing Backwards

  2. Pingback: Sure it’s genealogy; it’s just not mine! | Glancing Backwards

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