Material in Special Collections can also be described at many levels at once, thanks to a powerful tool known as a finding aid. Finding aids, many of which are now available online, are multi-page documents that function as road maps, guiding researchers to the part or parts of a collection most likely to answer their questions. Finding aids such as the guide to the F. Scott Fitzgerald Papers describe collections as a whole, then break them into series and, sometimes, subseries based on the form, including genre and format, or content of the material in the collection. In the Fitzgerald Papers, for example, correspondence is separated from the author's literary works, and clippings from scrapbooks. Finding aids conclude with a comprehensive list of the boxes and folders within each series or subseries, allowing researchers to focus their search. In some collections, the items within each folder are individually described.
Many finding aids also contain a short biography of a collection's creator or a corporate history if the creator is an organization. This is very helpful in contextualizing the material in a collection. It is important to bear in mind that apart from artificial collections, which draw their contents from many sources, collections are centered around an individual or organization - the creator - and are preserved as indivisible wholes based on their origin or, in archival parlance, provenance. Thus, while two collections may contain information on World War I, this information is not extracted and grouped together under this subject. To do so would be to fragment and, thus, distort the life of the individual or organization that collections such as the Fitzgerald Papers are designed to preserve.
Source: The Department of Rare Books and Special Collection. How Do I Find Material in Special Collections?