A finding aid is like a map to a collection. It answers the who/what/where/when/why questions about a collection. It also acts as a guide, showing you the boxes and folders you will need to look through in order to find the document for which you are searching.
Not all institutions finding aids will look the same, but there are several key elements you should pay attention to on every finding aid
Biographical/Historical Note: gives you background info about who created the collection
Scope and Content Note: tells you what kinds of materials you might find in the collection
Container/Box List: tells you where things are in the collection
Index Terms or Subject Headings: provide words to use to find similar collections
When communicating with an archivist about a collection you want to see, you’ll want to reference the title of the collection, the collection’s call number (sometimes called collection number), and - if possible - the number of the box you want to see.
If you don’t know the above mentioned information, that’s okay - just be as specific as possible when talking to the archivist; e.g., instead of “I’m interested in looking at documents related to women’s higher education,” try “I want to discover how the courses offered at Barnard College between 1939 and 1945 reflected the social and political contexts of the WWII era.”