Understanding finding aids


The purpose of this page is to explain how our fonds and finding aids work.

UCT Libraries: Special Collections has a unit known internally as the manuscripts and archives (M&A) unit. M&A collects and preserves primary source materials of long-term value. These materials are typically collected or created by private individuals and organisations, and donated or acquired because they are deemed to be of long-term research value. M&A also collects non-administrative materials created by individuals and departments within the university.

Archival finding aids provide descriptions of these holdings. A finding aid describes a discrete collection of records (a fonds), as well as the creator of the records and the context in which the materials were created or collected. A finding aid is thus an indispensable tool that aids the researcher in understanding the nature and scope of the material in a fonds. On this basis, researchers can decide on the merits of a visit to the repository to consult the original records, or, wherever possible, to access or acquire digital copies.
The vast bulk of M&A’s holdings has not been digitised and must be consulted on site. AtoM, however, will enable us to link descriptions to digital copies of the records where available and appropriate. Over time, we aim to significantly expand the scope of digital materials available.


Archival materials are the documentary remains generated by the activities of people and organisations. Archivists gain intellectual and physical control of such materials by organising the material into separate groupings based on provenance – that is, the person, family or organisation that accumulated the documents in the course of their everyday activities and functions. These groupings are called fonds. Although terminological differences abound in the literature, we use the term fonds to mean the body of records created and accumulated by an organisation, family, or person as the result of an organic process reflecting the functions of the creator.
For example, Colin Legum was a noted Fleet Street journalist who specialised in reporting on Africa. The Colin Legum fonds comprises a vast assortment of materials collected and used by Legum during the course of his 30-year career as a journalist, and includes his own writings, correspondence, photographs, and assorted source materials. This vast mass of material has been organised into a coherent structure which allows researchers to access the material in a meaningful manner. The system of physical arrangement is reflected in a finding aid by means of a systematic hierarchical arrangement. In the case of the Colin Legum fonds, we can illustrate this as follows:

Level 1: Fonds BC1329 The Colin Legum papers

Level 2: Series A Personal papers

Level 3: File A1 Biographical citations and entries

Level 4: Item A1.1 Biography in French by College de Defense de L’Otan (1 item) (1973)

At Level 1, each fonds is given a unique call number (BC -) and an appropriate title. The fonds is then typically arranged into a number of series. Each series will typically comprise a quantity of files, and in each file will be individual items of similar nature. In the example above, the first three levels are conceptual, while the item level describes the actual content. The researcher will thus know that item A1.1 is a French language biography of Legum published by the College de Defense de L’Otan in 1973. If the researcher wished to see the actual item, he would request BC1329, item A1.1. At a physical level, the boxes that house the actual materials will be labelled in such a manner that repository staff will be able to retrieve item A1.1 from the appropriate box in fonds BC1329.

Of course, not all fonds lend themselves to such a simple logical hierarchy. Different permutations are possible, as the following diagram illustrates:

Series A
File A1
Item A1.1
Series B
Item B1.1
Series C
Sub-series C1
Sub-sub-series C1.1
File C1.1.1
Item C1.1.1.1

The fonds comprises three series, but each of the series is differently structured. The nature of the material, and the physical and intellectual arrangement decided on by the archivist, will determine the level to which each description goes. For example, the archivist decided that in light of Legum’s vast network of colleagues and acquaintances around the world, it was necessary to describe certain aspects of the collection in fine detail, especially his correspondence. Thus we find, for example, the following:



Level 3: Sub-series C17 Colin Legum's involvement in South African politics

Level 4: Sub-sub-series C17.5 General political activities

Level 5: File C17.5.3 Correspondence (1942-1949)

Level 6: Item C17.5.3.3 Letters from The Labour Party, Ward 7, calling for help with the 1947 municipal elections

Note how the first four levels are conceptual in nature. Level 3 tells us that there are at least 16 other sub-series that comprise Series C. Level 4 tells us that there are at least four other sub-sub series in sub-series C17. Level 5, which describes a file, tells us that there are at least 2 other files in sub-sub series C17.5. File C17.5.3 comprises a collection of documents that are similar in nature (that is, correspondence about political matters dating from between 1942 and 1949). Only at level 6 is one of the individual items within the file described. To see that particular letter, the researcher would request BC1329 C17.5.3.3. Once again, repository staff would use that call number to locate the box, file, and item that it refers to.

Users must keep in mind the hierarchical nature of arrangement and description when navigating a finding aid. In the Atom interface, the user is presented with three columns or panels on each screen. The hierarchical description is displayed in a "tree view" on the left hand side of the screen. The top level (fonds) is always shown. When a lower level has other levels below it, this is indicated by the presence of an arrow. Clicking on the arrow allows the user to drill down to the next level. At each level, the central panel provides details of that specific level of description (it will be greyed out in the tree view). Details will be inherited from the fonds level, unless the archivist has specifically entered data at that level of description germane to that item. The user can also get an overview of file and items lists from a fonds or series description: click the "Reports" link on the right hand side of the screen; select "File list" or "Item list"; click "Continue" and follow the prompts. Atom will display the file or items records in a list view. Further contextual and related information is displayed in the right-hand column. If the user clicks on “Creator”, for example, an authority record for the person, corporate body, or family that was responsible for the creation or collection of the fonds is returned. This gives substance to the archival dictum that archivists describe the creators of records as well as the records they create (unlike librarians, who typically catalogue only the book).By clicking on access points (Subject, Place, or Name), results will be returned that pertain to other AtoM fonds that have the same access points, thus allowing the user to expand his/her search.


Archival materials exist in many formats, such as textual records, audio-visual recordings, film and photographs, architectural drawings, and so on. The records may exist on various physical media – paper, microform, digital. Most of M&A’s holdings are currently in analogue format, but we are actively engaged in establishing the technical and policy infrastructure to enable us to acquire, preserve and make accessible born-digital archival material.