Archivists have traditionally understood access through finding aids, assuming that—through creating them—they are effectively providing access to archival materials. This article is a history of finding aids in American archival practice that demonstrates how finding aids have negatively colored how archivists have understood access. It shows how finding aids were originally a compromise between resource constraints and the more familiar access that users expected, how a discourse centered on finding aids hindered the standardization of archival description as data, and how the characteristics of finding aids as tools framed and negatively impacted the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) standard. It questions whether finding aids are a productive or useful framework for understanding how archivists provide access to collections.

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