Descriptive Practices

Margot Note

Margot Note

April 17, 2023

Digitizing materials requires an investment in describing them to aid users in discovering them. What makes description challenging is the level of detail required. 

Understanding description requires knowledge of recognized standards and the ability to apply them. In addition, description requires multitasking, toggling between high-level philosophical issues such as the inclusiveness of subject terms and a focused eye for detail to troubleshoot data entry issues.

For most projects, already processed collections ease description choices for digitization. A certain amount of description regarding the collection exists. A readymade list of prioritized subject terms, people, and corporate bodies provides details to aid description practices.

Access to analog collections is usually through finding aids, which may only include subject indexing for extensive collections. The most frequent approach to retrieval among various archives is by subject. However, practices vary depending on the repository, the resources available, the size and requirements of the collection, and user needs. The priorities of each institution must be addressed in determining the depth of description required for their holdings.

Item-Level Description

Archivists have often dismissed description at the item level as impractical. However, some have adhered to it, even though it contradicts the traditional archival practice of collection-level description. In addition, item-level description is more common with visual materials than textual materials. Therefore, archivists must evaluate their collections to determine if item-level description is warranted. 

Although time-consuming, item-level description makes materials searchable with digital images without retrieving the originals. However, resources are seldom adequate to index collections at the item level; item-level handling should exist within a group-level description framework. Repositories with limited budgets may digitize a few representative files while noting additional unscanned materials.

Ideally, adequate information should be provided for each file. Therefore, digital resources should be searchable by subject through keywords. Linked item-level records can provide more information and are searchable within and among collections. However, due to the labor involved, linking may be impractical for digitizing initiatives of any significant size.

Although archivists debate the necessity for item-level access, describing materials taken together is often more complex. Collection-level description can be helpful for materials of the same subject but problematic for collections with various subjects, as it neither improves retrieval nor limits handling. Nevertheless, group arrangement and description are necessary for large collections or when resources are limited. 

Users can access collections as a single unit, or when organized intellectually under one classification while being physically stored or electronically displayed in distinct groupings. A coherence that binds the contents together characterizes collections. As a result, a totality enhances the research value of each item beyond what it would have in isolation.

Encoded Archival Description (EAD) Finding Aids

Some institutions use MARC records to index subjects for extensive collections through individual collection-level records. The MARC records lead users to a finding aid for more details. Since the finding aids were paper-based and often only available locally at the institution, users would have to view them in person. 

Item-level MARC cataloging was often neither warranted nor feasible. The format and access capabilities of the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aid, however, offer the possibility of a more flexible alternative. EAD was developed to mark the data contained in finding aids so they can be searched and displayed online. In addition, it promised a more sophisticated way to produce searchable text and provide descriptions to facilitate cross-collection searching. EADs index collections by providing access points at the collection or item level, depending on the institution’s collections, needs, and users. As the tools for accessing finding aids become sophisticated, EADs’ content-specific indexing capabilities make them a helpful resource for standardized, integrated archival access. 

When in Doubt, Choose Dublin Core

The Dublin Core Metadata Element Set was designed to be easy to use and less expensive to implement than other complex metadata schemes. Dublin Core arose from discussions at a 1995 workshop sponsored by Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). As the workshop was held in Dublin, Ohio, the element set was named the Dublin Core. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative (DCMI) manages the continuing development of the Dublin Core.

The core set of 15 data elements facilitates discovery. It captures information such as the title, identifier, creator, contributor, publisher, language, description, subject, coverage, date, type, relation, format, source, and rights. No elements are mandatory; all can be repeated and expanded if needed. While Dublin Core metadata serves as a framework, the standard is open to interpretation. The use of the elements may vary among institutions; it focuses on interoperability and international consensus. 

Dublin Core is attractive to archival institutions because of the systems that support it. Dublin Core is Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) compliant, which promotes interoperability by allowing institutions to export their records for inclusion in search services. 

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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