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What Is a Finding Aid?
"Finding aids" are descriptive inventories, indexes, or guides that we write to describe the contents of our archival records and manuscript collections. Finding aids provide information about these primary source collections, including the context and creator, any archival actions such as acquisition and processing, and often a detailed contents list. Read a finding aid to 1) determine the relevance of a collection to your research; 2) understand the context of the material; and 3) identify specific parts of a collection you would like to use. (Note that the "contents list" section leads you to specific folders and or boxes.)
Most of the Archives Department's collections are described in online finding aids which are searchable in the state-wide database Archival Resources in Wisconsin (http://digital.library.wisc.edu/1711.dl/WIArchives). Or, you can read finding aids when you visit the Archives.
Watch our video on searching in and understanding finding aids at How to Find Archival Materials.
General Tips for Using the Archives
For the most success, we suggest that you decide on a general research topic before you visit us. Or, if you are working on a class assignment, make sure you understand your assignment.
In general, the more research you do in secondary (e.g. books, documentaries) and tertiary (e.g. encyclopedias) sources, and the more familiar you are with the period or topic you are studying, the more productive you will be in the Archives.
Each time you visit, give yourself enough time. Using archival material usually takes more than 30 minutes, and sometimes hours or days, so we recommend that you allot an hour or two for your first visit.
To familiarize yourself with the archives, watch our tutorial "Visit the UWM Archives."
- Our hours are 8:00 am - 4:30 pm Mondays - Fridays. Also, during the school year, when classes are in session, we have evening hours on Wednesdays and Thursdays until 6.30 pm. We are not open on the weekends. You can call us at 414 229-5402 to verify our hours.
- Occasionally, a collection is out on a 30-day loan to another archives in Wisconsin. If you have already identified a collection that you want to use, feel free to call us at 414 229-5402 to verify that it is at UWM.
- Make sure you bring a valid photo ID (student ID, driver's license, or passport). Everyone must show a valid photo ID each time they visit.
- You may make fair-use copies of much of the material in the Archives. A self-service photocopier and other tools are available for your use. Use of personal copying equipment is also generally permitted. See a staff member for more information. Laptops and notepads are allowed.
- We recommend that you discuss your research topic with a staff member. S/he can help you search for material, or may know of collections which work well for your topic.
- If you already know what you would like to see, tell us the call number or the title of the collection. If you don't know, we will help you find something.
- We will ask you to stow all bags, use pencil only, and use one folder from one box at a time. Full information is available on the registration form.
- Read the finding aid, or the catalog record; they explain who created your collection or document, and tells you more about its context. Settle in to look at the material carefully, analyze its place in the broader story, and do some digging. Remember that the theories you have or the questions you bring to the Archives may not be answered by the sources you see here; rather, the sources may lead you to pose different questions, or to different conclusions.
- If you have not found enough material, or you decide to take a different angle in your research and would like to work with something else, ask our staff. We will be happy to search to find different material for you.
- If you would like to make fair-use copies, talk with our staff.
- Remember to cite the material you find interesting, pertinent, or of which you make copies. Write down the call number, collection title, and exact box and folder numbers.
- Analyze what you have found. Archival research can be very rewarding, not only due to the special nature of the materials, but due to the fact that you are the one who has to analyze the material you read, and place it correctly in its context. Archivists and professors can help you, but in the end, you draw conclusions from the materials.