Archival Data Standards: A Short History

Margot Note

Margot Note

May 10, 2021

Archival description captures and provides access to information about collections of historical records. The primary descriptive tools of archivists have been finding aids, which supply inventories of collections to help with discovering and using archival materials. 

Archival description includes everything from repository guides to catalog cards detailing individual items. Inventories come in various formats but have become more systematic as archivists adopt standards such as MARC and EAD. They also increasingly tend to represent collections. Archives have moved away from the library practice of describing individual items to describing collections, their contents, and their context. When used with a robust archival collections management system (CMS), data standards offer archivists a powerful tool for consistent description. 

The Creation of Standards 

Librarians developed MARC as a descriptive tool for books in online public access catalogs (OPACs). Archivists, recognizing the possibilities and lacking an electronic descriptive standard of their own at that time, adopted MARC as a method for describing collections while maintaining finding aids as the primary descriptive tool. Archives commonly implemented MARC to gain representation in library catalogs to help with subject searching and access. 

MARC has limitations for archives beyond the issues of granularity, extensibility, and technological obsolescence. One problem with MARC is that while it can manage collection-level description, it does not lend itself to the more detailed parts of archival description. It is possible in MARC to associate series level records with one another and with the collection-level record, but it can be cumbersome in practice. 

Some repositories create both EAD-encoded finding aids and MARC records for uncatalogued collections. Though the archival community can question the need for continued MARC cataloging when finding aids are available online, others argue that the benefit of attracting users by including MARC records in local and union catalogs outweighed the added work involved in cataloging.

Data Standards for Finding Aids

Modern-day inventories usually have a combination of standard data elements and narrative notes. Typically, a finding aid consists of a main entry or title, dates covered in the materials, the cubic or linear feet of the collection, a biographical or historical note providing the user with background on the creating entity, a note describing the scope and contents of the collection, and a statement about arrangement. Other components may include a note on provenance, a list of series or subordinate parts (such as correspondence), descriptions of the series, and a container list detailing the contents of each box and folder.

XML-based Standards

The use of XML-based standards is an indisputable advantage for archivists. It is simple to convert from one XML DTD or schema to another, making the reuse of all or part of a finding aid easier. XML also creates an environment where it is easy to completely change the look and feel of finding aids by changing a stylesheet. 

Despite archivists’ reticence to adopt standard methods for describing the materials in their care, best practices suggest the need for following standard data structures and regularizing the data put into these structures. The interoperability of XML has shown itself to help use the data created to fulfill the requirements of one standard, such as MARC, by reusing it in a new standard like EAD.

Standard Adherence 

Archival repositories should capitalize on modern technologies and data standards, enabling the future needs for conversion and reuse of data that archivists have yet to foresee. The use of internationally supported data structure standards also allows archivists to benefit from others’ work by using rules, standards, and conversion tools. 

Adherence to standards is necessary for complete machine-processed conversion, such as transferring data from a legacy system to an archival CMS. The consistent application of data standards makes data clean-up unnecessary or minimized. Using controlled vocabularies in establishing creator names and selecting subject headings saves time while creating EADs, for example, as archivists had already checked entries against authority files. 

Standardization plays a key role in the ability to adapt to technological change. Traditionally archivists have been skeptical of using standards, in part because the unique nature of archival and manuscript materials requires a unique approach with each collection. This approach changed with the adoption of data structure and content standards. In an online environment, standards improve archival descriptions by new groups of users who may be inexperienced in archival research. The use of standards is also crucial for archival institutions to quickly respond to innovative technologies and user demands. 

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, and register here for her upcoming webinar, “CMS Essentials for Success #5: Export in Standard Formats” on May 19, 2021.

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