Archival Description and Cataloging

Margot Note

Margot Note

July 05, 2021

Archival description, primarily, is a way to bring order to the chaos of unprocessed records of enduring value.

Description is not just what archivists do to an individual collection. Description begins when the collection first comes into a repository—when archivists accession collections into a repository’s recordkeeping system. Archival description is incremental and progressive, and proceeds in a continuum. As archivists work further on a collection, they can provide more detailed and comprehensive information. Archivists are also able to provide a broader range of access points, both local and remote. 

Cataloging Differences

There are significant differences between library and archives cataloging. For example, holdings are similar from library to library, allowing for copy cataloging. The library catalog leads the user directly to the item; the archival catalog leads the user to the finding aid, which is a surrogate for the collection. Archival terminology is confusing, so it is harder to develop a system that researchers can use without interventions by staff members. Archivists are dealing with an environment with increasing expectations that everything is on the Internet, an achievement that is much more difficult for archives.

There are many differences between archival materials and library materials too. For instance, there are physical differences between discrete volumes with ready-made data and boxes of unlabeled papers in folders. Differences exist between items consciously created to be used by others and materials accruing over the course of activity. There are also differences between the library focus on subject and content and the archival focus on context and source.

Limitations of MARC

While finding aids describe collections at many levels, MARC records often represent single-level records for inclusion in integrated library systems and bibliographic utilities, such as WorldCat. The presence of archival materials in these records has enhanced the reach of these records. 

The relationship between the MARC record and finding aid is an important one. For any level of description created in a finding aid, a cataloger could create a corresponding MARC record, although only at one level. Therefore, MARC records become a summary for a particular level of description. 

The distinction between single-level and multilevel descriptions is a fundamental construct for archival description. Single-level description allows catalogers to describe archival materials at any level, from collections to single items and any level in between. They can, however, only describe that material at one level. Multilevel description, in contrast, represents at least one sublevel. This distinction provides archival catalogers flexibility. 

MARC captures data describing a discrete bibliographic item; complex collections requiring descending levels of analysis overburdened this structure. While adoption of MARC was well underway, archivists needed more to satisfy the multilevel characteristic of archival description.

Accessing Collections 

The chief information source for the catalog record is the finding aid and other administrative information, not the collection itself. If archivists went back to the actual collection for the cataloging, they run the risk of producing access points that the inventory does not reflect. Users could find call phantom entries in the catalog and then be unable to locate information related to the access point in the finding aid. Access points should lead directly to the information that clarifies the access point.

Catalog description is one component of the overall finding aid system. There has been discussion as to whether, with the Internet, archivists need to have a system at all. Users, for example, can enter search terms into Google and discover archival inventories. This approach is unsatisfactory and does not help a repository manage its holdings. 

In addition, the finding aid systems serve internal as well as external purposes. Researchers and archivists use the catalog to locate a particular collection or find everything an institution has on a topic. Users can then move from the summary catalog description to the inventory or surrogate and then to the collection. The catalog still serves as a portal to archival materials.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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