Evidence Explained QuickLesson 4 (1) deals with the NARA finding aides that open up a whole lot of research avenues just by showing you what sources are out there. But of course, finding aides are not restricted to NARA, nor to the US.
Here in the Netherlands, many archives (including our National Archive) have finding aides on their websites – mostly by topic. They are a great help when you want to research something specific, since it basically tells you what sources that specific archive has on the topic you’re researching. Topics range from general ‘ancestors’ and ‘homes’ to more specific ones like ‘military’ and ‘naturalization’. These finding aids often point you to sources at other archives as well.
But there’s one huge source of finding aides that covers a lot topics and is not specific to an archive, but it’s sliding into obscurity. They are called broncommentaren (English: source comments), and basically does what the name suggests. It takes either a source (like population registers, or tax rolls in the 17th century) or a topic (like sources concerning the registration of foreigners in the 19th and 20th century) and describes the sources – what can be found in them and where you can find them, along with general information that will let you evaluate the information you glean from these sources. As an aside, these broncommentaren talk about the instructions or particular laws that governed the making of these sources. This is important to truly understand and correctly interpret the source, as shown quite clearly in Evidence Explained QuickLesson 9 (2).
There are 20 broncommentaren available, about a multitude of sources and topics ranging from the 20th century all the way back to the middle ages. These broncommentaren have helped me when I was stuck so many times already, it would be a shame if people didn’t know they were there anymore – especially since all of them are now online, for free! They can be found here.
(1) Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 4: NARA Citations & Finding Aids,” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (http://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-4-nara-citations-finding-aids : 2 November 2012)
(2) Elizabeth Shown Mills, “QuickLesson 9: Census Instructions? Who Needs Instructions?” Evidence Explained: Historical Analysis, Citation & Source Usage (http://www.evidenceexplained.com/content/quicklesson-9-census-instructions-who-needs-instructions: 2 November 2012).