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Here’s Looking at You, Finding Aid

The following is a guest blog post by Justina Moloney, an archivist at the Veterans History Project (VHP).

People often ask me to explain what an archivist does, and though there are a multitude of different ways I could explain my profession, I generally say, “Oh, I’m a librarian of old things.” While librarians and archivists share many foundational beliefs –the power of ordered information, the creation of tools aiding access to desired resources— the materials we work with are very different. Those old things I mentioned vary depending on what an archival institution collects, but they generally can include an individual’s or an organization’s historic materials. Papers, correspondence, diaries, photographs, audio-visual material, and now digitally-made material all encompass what could be found in archival collections.

An archivist’s bread and butter, after physically organizing archival materials, is creating a tool called a finding aid. A finding aid groups together all the relevant information about an archival collection, everything from its history to the types of materials featured, and most importantly, how it’s organized. At its core, the goal of a finding aid is to help a researcher figure out if what they’re hoping to find might actually be in the material they are considering reviewing; archivists love to call this discoverability. We all understand how devastating it can be when you go to the library looking for a book, only to find that it’s already checked out. The same thing happens when you request to look at an archival collection, only to find that it doesn’t even include a person of interest’s photos, and that’s the whole reason you came to the archive!

A screenshot of the main page of the Louis Milton Ronsheim finding aid.

Screenshot of the Ronsheim finding aid.

The Veterans History Project (VHP) archive has over 111,000 collections within our archival holdings, documenting veterans’ personal narratives, yet not every collection has a finding aid created. Every VHP collection is a valuable resource, a primary document that is accessible to the public, whether it’s in our available collection of digital materials found on our website, or via a request to have a collection pulled to view in person at the American Folklife Center Reading Room. The justification for the creation of a finding aid centers on two guiding principles: the anticipated level of researcher interest in the collection, and the size of the collection. Sometimes, a collection may be so large that a finding aid will make what’s included in the collection more discoverable. VHP currently has 41 finding aids, and we are continually working on creating more for our largest and most requested collections.

Four soldiers in WWI uniforms with rifles over their soldiers stand in front of a tent.

Four unidentified soldiers with rifles. Louis Milton Ronsheim Collection, Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/102296.

The VHP archive contains collections that range from very small in size –perhaps just an amazing oral history of a veteran’s experience— to quite large –potentially hundreds of photographs and letters documenting one’s narrative—and a finding aid is a great tool to help a researcher determine if something is of interest to them amidst those hundreds of items. Take for example the large collection of Louis Milton Ronsheim, which includes close to 1,000 photos, and hundreds of letters and other manuscript materials. Without the guide of a finding aid, a researcher might have a hard time imagining what Ronsheim discussed in the letters he sent home to his wife, family and friends, while stationed in Europe with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I, or what his vast wartime photography documented during his time overseas. The Biographical Note of the finding aid informs us that Ronsheim’s letters were also published in his local newspaper, and in the Contents List we can learn the subject matter of these letters before we even have a chance to pour ourselves into them while reviewing them onsite at the Library. We can see in the Contents List that his collection is broken up into Series; these are groups of collection material that are generally organized by material type or chronology. Most VHP finding aids will have series broken up by material type. So, if you were only curious about Ronsheim’s war photography, you would navigate to Series II: Photographs. When a finding aid is available, you save a lot of time searching. What is accessible is clearly defined, and what’s NOT in the collection is very direct. This makes researching much easier, as you can request materials with some confidence that what you are looking for may be found.

George Washington Pearcy in uniform in the Philippines, 1940. Veterans History Project, AFC2001/001/100245.

Sometimes a finding aid might inform you of connections with other material at the same institution, or outside collection institutions. At VHP, we often have collections donated by veterans who are related to one another, served with each other, or have any number of unique, personal connections. The George Washington Pearcy Collection finding aid includes one of these special associations. Here you’ll find a History of the Collection section that informs you of a connection with the Robert Augur Collection. Pearcy and Augur were friends who were prisoners of war (POWs) of the Japanese and interned at the Bilibid POW Camp in the Philippines during World War II. When Pearcy was forced to board the prison ship, Arisan maru, he asked Augur to care for his diaries detailing his experiences at the prison camp, in the hopes that Augur could eventually return the diaries to Pearcy’s family. Pearcy was killed aboard the Arisan maru when it was torpedoed in 1944, but Augur did make it home and fulfilled the difficult task of contacting Pearcy’s family to deliver his diaries. VHP is lucky to have these two collections, and the connection is easily discoverable, because this valuable story is documented in Pearcy’s Collection finding aid. You may also read Megan Harris’ 2-part blog post on the fascinating story of how the Pearcy and Augur families connected through VHP here and here.

A finding aid is a fantastic tool to highlight a collection, especially one that may be used quite a bit by the public. It can help you spend less time with a collection that doesn’t fulfill your research needs, or expand your interaction with a collection exponentially. Finding aids are an invaluable tool for researchers, no matter how you use one. Researching in person with a collection is not always feasible, and while VHP is proud to have so many of its collections available online, there really is nothing like researching in person, and with a finding aid to guide you. The finding aid is truly the aide de camp of the archival world.

Please contact VHP at least 10 working days in advance to schedule an appointment to research or view collections onsite. We are unable to serve collections on-demand. Email [email protected] or call (202) 707-4916 to schedule.

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