Finding aids have long been an essential part of archivists’ work. To create a finding aid is to create a surrogate of an archival collection. Multiple levels of description are used to distill information about the unique groupings and parts of a collection and to place its content into context. Archivists make decisions about what to include in a finding aid based on their own judgment as trained professionals, but also with the intent to create a finding aid that will be genuinely helpful to researchers. Indeed, as the revised principles of Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) state: “Users are the fundamental reason for archival description… To make wise choices about descriptive practices, archivists must develop and maintain an awareness of user needs and behaviors.” The practical challenge facing archivists is knowing what users will find helpful. Although archivists often seek to center users in their processes of description, these efforts are often based on guesses concerning what users will find useful. Very little research has been done to understand how users read and navigate archival description; there is a distinct disconnect between the intention of centering users and carrying out usability or user studies to under user needs.

This study is intended to advance our understanding on this matter, responding to two questions: Do researchers use collection or series level notes valued by archivists, such as scope and content and arrangement notes, in order to understand what is in a collection? Or, do users rely mostly on information found at lower levels, describing what might be in a single file or the content of a single item? And, working in the post "MPLP" context, if granular description is not available in a finding aid, are users able to ascertain what is in a collection and if it is relevant to their search?