A Deeper Dive into Archival Description

Margot Note

Margot Note

February 24, 2020

The purpose of archival description is to make accessible the information contained in the collection and maintain control over archival holdings.

Description should define intellectual content and physical characteristics, as well as document records creators, content, and context. It should also explain how to use the records, the relationships among records, and how to gain physical access.

Description Defined

Description analyzes, organizes, and records details about the elements of a collection, such as a creator, title, dates, extent, and contents, to facilitate the work’s identification, management, and understanding. It’s the creation of a representation of a unit of archival material by the process of capturing, collating, and evaluating information. It serves to identify materials and explain the contents and records systems that produced them.

Archival Description vs. Bibliographic Description

Description for archival materials differs from the bibliographic description that most people are used to based on their experiences with libraries. Both have standards—with archival description standards deriving from cataloging standards. However, archival materials don’t offer information about themselves as easily as a book, with a page listing title, author, publisher, year of creation, and other information. Instead, an archivist conducting description of a collection discovers and infers information from the content and context of the materials. The information is often updated if materials are added to the collection later.

Some Considerations

When describing collections, archivists consider several points. For example, they can only describe collections to the level at which archivists have arranged them. If an archivist hasn’t processed a box of archival materials at the folder level, then it can only be described at the box-level. For many types of collections, box-level description is adequate for research needs.

The level to which the archivist describes a body of records should be dependent on the records, their anticipated use, and the appraisal of their research value. Not every collection gets described to the same level, nor does everything within a single collection. I’ve found that my consulting clients and non-archivists tend to be surprised by the distinct levels of description. Many people believe that each item should be described, which is laborious and unnecessary. Instead, archivists focus on matching the level of description to the research value of the materials.

Archival description concerns itself with progressive levels of control, from the point at which the archivists brought in the collection and accessioned and appraised it. The collection is refined as the archivist performs additional arrangement activities, working through levels of arrangement. Description employs a hierarchical and iterative analysis of a body of materials sharing provenance. The process starts with describing the collection as a whole and then describes series and subseries as needed. 

Archivists are concerned about the chief source of information. At each point, the archivist is basing his or her description on previous work. For example, archivists draft their basic finding aids from the collection. Cataloging is then usually done from the finding aid. 

Description should only be made for intellectual groupings, not for various kinds of housing. It can bring together materials that are physically separated within the repository or connected to related holdings elsewhere. What cannot be brought together in a storage room can be joined within a finding aid. 

Lastly, the audience for the archival collection is important. Who will be using the records? Do they exist both in the repository and remotely, which is becoming increasingly important? What other information and background are the researchers likely to need?

The Result

Archival description is a process of creating access tools, usually finding aids or similar guides that allow researchers to browse the collection. Description acts as a surrogate to the archival materials; rather than searching through cartons of materials, users can peruse a document to facilitate access without unnecessary handling of materials. Description, performed with care by dedicated archivists, provides a road map to records of enduring value, just waiting to be utilized.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and get your free copy of Margot’s book under the Lucidea Press imprint, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success

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