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University of Southern Maine
Libraries & Learning

Guide to Special Collections: How to Use Finding Aids

Learn about accessing and using Special Collections resources for your courses or research projects.

Using a Finding Aid to Locate Primary Sources for Research

Special Collections is home to over 300 collections of primary sources. How do we help you find items in our collections? A finding aid describes a collection and shows researchers where to look within a collection. This video describes the different parts of a finding aid and how researchers use them.

Simple Steps for Using a Finding Aid to Request Primary Sources

  1. Select a finding aid on USM Digital Commons. See Searching and Browsing Collections: Manuscripts for search tips.
  2. Note the Call Number and Title of the collection. You will need these when you request the materials.
  3. Read the Biographical Note/Administrative History to learn about the person or organization who created the collection.
    • How are they related to your research topic?
    • When (during what date range) did they do the activities that relate to your topic?
  4. Read the Description of the Collection/Scope and Content Note to learn about what's in the collection.
    • Does the collection contain materials that relate to your research topic?
    • Where are those materials concentrated? Are there series or subseries that contain the most relevant materials?
  5. Scan the Box and Folder List/Inventory
    • Focus on the most relevant series or subseries, based on your review of the above.
    • Identify the Box Number, Folder Number, Folder Title/Description, and Date Range of the folders you want to review.
  6. Request the folders you want to review from the reference desk in the Special Collections Reading Room. 
    • Include the Call Number, Title, Box Number, and Folder Number in your request.

Browse and Search Finding Aids on Digital Commons


Review the complete list of Finding Aids here.


You can keyword search all available finding aids.

  1. Navigate to the complete list of Finding Aids.
  2. Enter a keyword in the search box in the left sidebar (see image).

Screenshot of the Digital Commons search box.

Special Collections Librarian & Food Studies Liaison

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Jill Piekut Roy
Subjects: Food Studies