Western Libraries

Archival Finding Aid How Tos


General Description

This guide has been prepared to assist and inform those wanting to understand Finding Aid basics, including their structure and terms that are used.   This is especially important when making a retrieval request for material.

There are two types of Finding Aids used within the Archives and Special Collections at Western Libraries: Descriptive Inventories or Preliminary Inventories.  Visit the Archives Finding Aids page for more information and to see a list of available finding aids.  There may be additional listings for unprocessed or more recent acquisitions.   These can be reviewed by the archivist in charge of the fonds/collection to answer inquiries or possibly provided for consultation.  Please contact us as inquiries are always welcome.

Archives and Special Collections Guides


Finding Aid description

All Finding Aids are in PDF format and can be searched within each document.    Paper copies are also available in the Reading Room.

Preliminary Inventories:

These can be found in a variety of formats from "basic contents" lists or as an older style Finding Aid with only some levels and elements similar to descriptive inventories in current use.

Descriptive Inventories:

This type of Finding Aid is created using current archival practice and the Rules of Archival Description (RAD).

If you click on bold text (hyperlink) within the Finding Aid it will direct you to the same content within the Archives Holdings Database.

Levels found within a Descriptive Inventory:

  • Fonds/Collection (AFC)
    • Sous-fonds (SF) [if it exists]
      • Series (S)
        • Sub-series(SS) [if it exists]
          • File (F)
            • Item (I)

AFC stands for "Archives Fonds Collection". This abbreviation is applied with a reference number to each fonds/collection before beginning the arrangement and description processing tasks in order to prepare a Finding Aid.  Abbreviations in brackets are used within the descriptive inventories for numbering within levels, and the reference number used on the storage container for the material.

Each Descriptive Inventory begins with a Title Page and Table of Contents.  Standard elements within each level of a Finding Aid are shown below.  This is not an exhaustive list of all possible elements, and not all elements may be used.

  • Extent (physical description)
  • Biographical Sketch/Administrative History  
  • Scope and Content - gives a summary description with more details of contents
  • Custodial History
  • Languages
  • Related Materials - provides direction on content within other fonds/collections at Archives and Specials Collections or other sites holding archival material
  • Restrictions
  • Arrangement
  • Title Notes

Similar information also appears in the Archives Holdings Database although it is displayed differently.

Making A Request

The preferred method for making a retrieval request is by email; other options include requesting in person at the Reading Room desk, or by telephone.  Keep in mind that a request needs to be limited to a maximum number of 10 boxes/items at a time.   Please make a request for material at least one day prior to your planned visit.  If you require multiple files from same box or boxes, a request for this single box should just be be submitted once. Unless there is an issue with any of the items requested the assumption should be made that all material has been retrieved.   Once on site, additional material can be requested during your time in the reading room.

Please provide the following container or item information:  (keep notes on item(s) requested from specific boxes so they can be more readily located.

From a Preliminary Inventory or Library Catalogue (OMNI) or Archives Holdings Database:

Fonds Name

Series or Sub-Series title

Container Number:

B = Box #

F = File #

RC #  = photograph number

Other numbers

  • M = Microfilm 
  • F = Microfiche 
  • C/CX/CXX = cartographic material (maps/oversize maps)
  • X = Oversize storage boxes

From a Descriptive Inventory:

Fonds Name

File Title

Container Number = Box Number

AFC ## - ##(box #) / ## (file or item)    Note: this appears at end of File or Item description in Descriptive Inventory

Example below: 

William Stewart fonds

AFC 311-S1-SS1-F1 Ontario Hydro. -- 1981. -- 4 colour photographs. -- Box Number AFC 311-36/14


If restrictions are noted in the Finding Aid then this material is likely unavailable, due to preservation or condition issues.  Usually, a substitute format can be provided.  Access to some fonds may require a Research Access Request. Once permission for access is granted, a Research Agreement will be prepared for signing prior to access to the material.


Note: Amended from the Library and Archives Canada website


A group of records or archives from the same entity (source), with the same place of origin or history (provenance), accepted all at once as holdings in an archival repository.

Accessioning is the formal process of accepting materials, which receive a unique, permanent accession number for basic archival control.

Archival record

Public or private materials that a person, a family, or an organization creates or receives over time, which are preserved because of their enduring value or as evidence of their creator’s functions and responsibilities. Archival records are unique and irreplaceable.

Arrangement structure

The intellectual and physical organization of an archive.

The documents of an archive, called fonds or collections, are arranged in a hierarchy—from general to specific—that is, from the fonds level to the item level.


A collection of material gathered by one person or organization for specific reason or subject interest, such as postcards, photographs, black history, or ephemera on pop culture


The person(s), family (families), corporate or government body (bodies) who created, or accumulated and used a collection of documents or archives during the course of personal or business life.  Information on the creators is summarized within the Biographical History/Administrative Sketch element within a Finding Aid.


Physical description of the amount of material found within a fonds or other level with a fonds/collection expressed as a number—for example, a number of pages, a number of items (photographs), a number of linear cm or metres.

Finding aids

Tools to help access archival material; they include descriptive inventories, guides, accession registers, library catalogues (OMNI), shelf lists, contents listings and automated databases (Archives Holdings Database).


The body of records and archives of an organization, an institution, or a person, in any medium, created and accumulated during the course of activities and functions.

A level of archival arrangement and description. A unit of handling.


The owners or guardians—person(s), family (families), corporate or government body (bodies)—of a collection of documents or archives before its formal transfer to and acquisition by an archival repository.  See Custodial History within the Descriptive Inventory.

Reference no.

A formal alphanumeric code assigned to an archival fonds or collection, for example, AFC 339.


Access restrictions indicating whether documents may or may not be consulted for research and reproduction purposes, especially if there is a conservation reason due to its condition (available in another format such as microfilm or digital).


The origin of acquired material, usually private or public (government).


Word(s) designating an intellectual work or archival document. There are two types of titles: formal titles and supplied titles.

Formal titles appear prominently in or on the documents being described; are usually assigned to the document by the creator; and are considered authoritative.

Supplied titles are assigned when no formal title is present; may be taken from evidentiary information found within the document, or an external source; may be composed by an archivist; usually appear between [square brackets]; and are an informed guess rather than authoritative.