Pulling Back the Curtain: The Finding Aid Enhancement Project

The Lilly Library reading room has not been operational for over 150 days. The Lilly’s usual home in the Fine Arts Plaza has been under construction for almost as long. To an outside observer, the Library appears to be closed. However, nothing could be further from the truth. 

So what have all the librarians, staff members, and student workers been up to for the last five months across the campus libraries? We at SRBM@IU thought we’d take the opportunity to show you, one post at a time. Many of us are student workers ourselves and have witnessed the effects the pandemic has had on library operations first-hand. Unfortunately, the hard work of librarians and students often goes overlooked during the best of times—switching to 100% virtual operations didn’t help matters. But here is your opportunity to pull back the curtain, so to speak, and see what it takes to keep a library functioning, even during a global health crisis. We hope you enjoy this first installment! 

The Finding Aid Enhancement Project

 Hi! My name is Alyssa Mertka, and before the pandemic I wore many hats as a student worker at the Lilly Library. I was employed as a desk attendant in the Public Services Department and a student assistant in the Conservation Department. In a typical week I performed a range of activities, from supervising patrons in our reading room, to shelving and shifting materials in the stacks, to performing basic book repairs. But when it was no longer safe for library operations to continue in person, I was sent home. Luckily, I was given a virtual assignment: the Finding Aid Enhancement Project. 

Every archival collection at the Lilly Library has a corresponding record known as a finding aid. These finding aids provide basic information about the collection, such as who created the materials included in the collection, how large the collection is, etc. The Lilly was already planning on moving all their finding aids from the old online access portal known as ArchivesOnline to a new platform (which can now be viewed here!). The pandemic provided the perfect opportunity to review all the existing finding aids to make sure that they were as accurate and helpful as they could be when they were transferred to the new platform. Many of the finding aids contained outdated language, incomplete information, or formatting issues that needed to be standardized. So I and my fellow employees set to work. 

The Process 
  1. Standardize 

First, I read each finding aid (Figure 1) to see if it has the following categories of information: 

  • Title: What the collection is called 
  • Creator: Who produced the items in the collection 
  • Extent: How many boxes are part of the collection
  • Language: What language the materials are in
  • Abstract: A short summary of the collection
  • Biographical Note: Information about the life and work of the main creator of the collection and any other significant correspondents, co-creators, etc.  
  • Scope/Content Note and Arrangement: Information about how the collection is organized and what kinds of items are present in the collection
  • Indexing Terms: Library of Congress subject headings to help users know what people, places, and topics can be found in the collection 

Figure 1: A finding aid for the Kerlin mss. collection, displayed on the old ArchivesOnline platform 

I input my assessment into a spreadsheet (Figure 2), correcting the formatting of any information that is presented in a non-standard way. For example, our standard is to display extent as a number of boxes, rather than a number of items. If a finding aid only lists an item count, I count the number of boxes in the finding aid and write that number down in the “Extent” column of my spreadsheet. During this stage, I also make sure to correct any typos or phrasing that is outdated or unclear. 

Figure 2: My finding aid enhancement project spreadsheet. Collection names are on the left, followed by their Lilly Manuscript Number (LMC). 

  1. Expand 

This is my favorite part of the project. If information in a finding aid is incomplete, I do some research to see if I can expand it. This happens most often with Biographical Notes, especially for people who were not famous during their lifetime or were part of a marginalized group. I use Google Books, Ancestry.com records, other Lilly finding aids and IUCAT records, and whatever else I can pull up in a Google Search to find out more about the people in our collections. Sometimes my search is fruitless, but other times I can turn a Biographical Note like this: 

into this: 

Getting to “rescue” people like Harriet from oblivion is what makes this job worth it. Everyone deserves to be remembered, and I’m happy I get to play a small part in giving the people in our collections equal attention. 

  1. Tag  

Finally, I go through the entire finding aid and assign Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH) to the collection. This standard vocabulary helps link our archival collections with other archival collections and books that have the same subject headings. Usually this process is straightforward, but occasionally I get to use unusual and fun headings like these: 

  • Extradition; Mail fraud; Antitrust investigations
  • Swiss mercenaries; Immigrants–United States; Grocers–United States
  • Poets, American; Tramps; Tramps in literature
  • Lost tribes of Israel; Indians of Mexico–Antiquities; Indians of Central America–Antiquities; Antiquarians
  • Vigilantes; Virginia City (Mont.); Twin Bridges (Mont.); Brigands and robbers; Fourth of July celebrations; Vigilance committees
  • Authors as criminals; Noir fiction; Detective and mystery stories; Literary agents

And, yes, these are all real subject headings I’ve assigned to collections! There’s a story behind every one. 


Researchers normally use our finding aids to see what’s in a particular collection so they can request particular documents to view in person. However, with the reading room currently closed to in-person visits, most of the undigitized archival collections only exist online as finding aids. Therefore, our finding aids must be as complete and accurate as possible so that patrons and librarians can still use them to answer questions, perform research, and plan future visits to the Lilly once we resume normal operations.  

Since the start of the pandemic, I have reviewed and expanded over 240 finding aids, and my colleagues have reviewed hundreds more. We are currently working on transferring our data into the new ArchivesOnline so that it can be used by people all over the world.

So, you see, the libraries and archives were never closed. Instead, we remained committed to providing access to information and serving you, our patrons, as fiercely as we did when we were still on-site. I hope you’ve enjoyed this look behind the curtain. Stay tuned for more perspectives on remote work, and in the meantime, thank a librarian! 

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