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The most cryptic finding aid ever

Friday, October 25th, 2013

In a world of bad finding aids, there are some that make you cringe. Did my archives do that?

This finding aid stands out because of the obvious hard work that went into it, but it is perhaps the least user-friendly thing I’ve ever seen.


Here’s the handy key from the bottom of page 3:


Now that you know how to interpret it, have a gander at page 21 of the finding aid:

Page 21 of the finding aid


Let’s translate the “1910″ line. Here’s an enlargement:


It reads “1910    2, 1, (1)     1xc, 1relay”

This tells us that there are 6 photographic prints of the “track” team (which in this finding aid means any team that runs).

In the position under the “Varsity” column header, “2,1,(1)” means four photographs are of the Varsity track team.  Of these four, two are presumably from the same negative and definitely from 1910, one is from a different negative and definitely 1910, and one is from a third negative and probably from 1910.

There are no photographs indicated under the column for the Junior Varsity team, but there are two “other” photographs.  One is the cross-country team, and the other is the relay team.

Of course, there’s a lot that this  finding aid is not saying.

There’s no information about the photographs’ sizes, or anything to help you retrieve the right folder.  (These are portfolio-sized folders stored flat in drawers, which is scary, since a lot of the photos are small, but we’ll let preservationists shudder about that.)

Near the top on the right-hand side are the years 1930 and 1931.  Does it take steeping in an Ivy League tradition to understand that “H-Y” means this is a photograph of a Harvard-Yale track meet?

Page21 H-Y detail


We’ve decoded this finding aid and converted it to EAD, but we didn’t convert some of the information– such as whether a date attribution was doubtful or whether more than one print might have come from the same negative.

And we’re still being slightly mysterious.  There are placeholders in the EAD version waiting for links to several dozen digitized images.

So, is this more user-friendly?