Description of Archival Collections

Margot Note

Margot Note

April 10, 2023

Archivists should increase the number of access points to their materials to help users navigate their collections. 

Description combines traditional archival practices with visual resource communities’ more focused descriptive methods. 

GLAM Description Practices

Libraries catalog books with objective descriptors, such as author, title, publisher, and year. As soon as a library catalogs a book, any library can copy its cataloging and apply it to its holdings. 

On the other hand, museums usually describe the collection first and the individual items second—and group items by creator, media, provenance, or historical period. Description includes genre and style, history and use, and preservation details. Much of the cataloging information at one museum cannot be applied to another work held by a different institution. The attributes and descriptors are subjective. For example, the artist’s name, year of production, and place of origin do not appear alongside the work as in a book. Subjective descriptive methods may lead to different information on the same object. Practices also vary because of the diversity of museums and their collections. 

Archivists create descriptions of unique materials, usually original unpublished material, expressed as item- and collection-level records. Description develops from the information gleaned during acquisition, appraisal, and arrangement, producing preliminary descriptive forms, such as container lists, summarizing the context and content of archival materials, and adding restrictions and access points. Thorough scrutiny of the collections may reveal details to form descriptions. In addition, research about the materials can sometimes inform description, although multiple sources should confirm any details. 

Archival collections often lack preexisting structures, titles, creator names, or other elements. Therefore, it was a natural progression for libraries and archives to use methods to describe archival materials they had already developed to describe books and documents. However, these bibliographic methods do not address the unique characteristics of archival collections. In addition, no method meets the description needs of all archives, libraries, and museums; these differences make searching for materials across institutions challenging. 

A Laborious Practice

Cataloging is knowledge-intensive and time-consuming because the characteristics that make materials valuable make them difficult to describe. Description and retrieval are acts of translation. Despite online catalogs, web-accessible collections, and improved information searching, access to collections has remained limited due to a lack of access and description. 

One assumes that description is adequate before digitization, but this is rarely true. Description often begins, or is improved, as part of the project. Much of the data required for records appears as the originals’ annotations. Therefore, information is assembled from various sources. Since description is not a project’s primary outcome, it is often perfunctory. 

As with other aspects of digital imaging, a digitization initiative’s purpose drives decisions about metadata. Accordingly, archivists evaluate the costs and benefits of creating and maintaining metadata at different levels of granularity. In addition, understanding the collections (and how users view them) enables a more critical evaluation of metadata schemas and a better framework for catalogers.

Standardized Approach to Description

A practical method of selecting and using metadata is creating a set of requirements that best describe the materials. Then, archivists assess the requirements against standards and vocabularies and investigate the approaches to metadata handling of similar collections. This approach ensures files are described to fit their intended purposes, saves time in developing cataloging rules, and ensures that the materials will be interoperable with other collections.

Due to the nature of archival materials, a standardized approach to description is ideal, but compromises must be made. For example, catalogers may not index all files completely, nor can all resources be expended on indexing only a few collections. While description is challenging, archival materials hold a wealth of information that justifies additional efforts to make them accessible. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

If you’re interested in this topic and eager to learn more, please join us for “Description”, the fifth in Margot Note’s latest free webinar series, on Wednesday, May 31, 2023 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we’ll send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now or call 604-278-6717.

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