Archival Description: An Annotated Bibliography

Description … captures and communicates knowledge about the broad administrative and documentary contexts of records creation within an organization as a whole as one moves further away from the original circumstances of creation. Its purpose is to preserve, perpetuate, and authenticate meaning over time so that it is available and comprehensible to all users—present and potential.[1]

Principles of original order and provenance aim to achieve the objectives of archival arrangement and description, which preserve the context of the archives and safeguard their evidential value and historical authenticity. Most archivists agree that descriptions of collections are often inadequate to capture the complexity of the records. Both an expanded understanding of the provenance and function of records and an acknowledgment that archivists are co-creators of the records could greatly enhance current description practices.

The following articles discuss the universal theoretical underpinnings of description, rather than specific descriptive standards. Articles, rather than monographs or websites, were chosen for their timeliness and their international perspective on description.[2] Descriptive systems for institutional records, digital records, personal papers, diaries, and ephemera are discussed. The intended audience is archivists at all experience levels, as the articles discuss theoretical approaches that may influence current practices at archival institutions. Archivists informed with current research can create descriptive systems with expended contextual information to assist users to better understand and interpret records.

Beattie, H. (2008). Where narratives meet: Archival description, provenance, and women’s diaries. Libraries & the Cultural Record 44(1), 82-100.

Beattie, Archivist in Description and Client Services, Hudson Bay Company Archives, discusses how archivists can improve description of personal papers and diaries by expanding provenance to include the writer’s motivation, intended audience, custodial history, and the archivist’s representation. Although archivists tend to remain neutral custodians of the historical record, Beattie urges using description methods and aspects of provenance taken from the humanities, which offer richer portrayals of diaries—women’s diaries, in particular. Deeper contextual information, rather than literary, overly subjective interpretations and descriptions, will assist users to better understand these intimate records. Beattie illustrates her points with passages from three women’s diaries at the Hudson Bay Company Archives and the Archives of Manitoba.

Chaudron, G. (2008). The potential of “function” as an archival descriptor. Journal of Archival Organization 6(4), 269-287.

Chaudron, Assistant Professor, Manuscripts, Mississippi State University, notes that while functional analysis has been used for appraisal methods, such as documentation strategy, the Minnesota Method, and macroappraisal, it can also be used for description. Influenced by records management practices, functional analysis allows archivists to examine the structures, processes, and activities of the organization beyond record creation, providing users with a broader view of how records reflected, and were part of, the functions of the organization. However, function cannot be applied as the principal descriptor for all records; while it works for institutional records, it has limited use with manuscripts. When used with traditional descriptive methods, however, functional descriptors can enhance information quality and access.

Duff, W. M., & Harris, V. (2002). Stories and names: Archival description as narrating records and constructing meanings. Archival Science 2(3), 263-285.

Duff, Professor, Information Studies, University of Toronto, and Harris, Archivist, South African History Archive, advocate descriptive standards that allow for a plurality of representation. Archivists must relinquish their control of access to and interpretation of records through description. Although the authority of archivists remains an obstacle for implementing descriptive architectures that allow user annotation, the authors believe that the benefits of presenting a more complete historical record outweigh the costs. User-created annotations in archival description provide opportunities for the marginalized to be heard in addition to authoritative, standardized archival-provided description. Duff and Harris demonstrate the importance of balancing the integrity and authority of archivists, while allowing for alternative voices in description.

Hadley, N. (2001). Access and description of visual ephemera. Collection Management 25, 39-50.

Hadley, Senior Archivist, College of William & Mary, states that description of ephemera varies between institutions, depending on the types of access points and the levels of description required. Using examples from the Houston Metropolitan Research Center of the Houston Public Library (HMRC), she notes that description is determined by the aesthetic and artifactual aspects of the materials, as well as if the ephemera collections are provenance based, artificially created, or within larger collections.
Descriptive systems should explicitly reflect the presence of ephemera, be firmly linked to other description systems in the repository, be consistent across holdings, provide the type and level of description appropriate to the nature of the materials, and anticipate their likely use.

Hedstrom, M. (1993). Descriptive practices for electronic records: Deciding what is essential and imagining what it is possible. Archivaria 36, 53-63.

Hedstrom, Associate Professor, School of Information and Library Studies, University of Michigan, questions whether traditional approaches to description are applicable to electronic records. She suggests using the challenges of digital records to define the purposes of creation; to reassess description’s objects, agents, and timing; and to develop approaches that exploit technology while aligning with archival practice. Description’s essential purposes must allow users to identify, access, understand, authenticate, and interpret meaning. Unfortunately, digital environments focus on data structures and content, not contextual information adequate to support the records’ use as evidence. Hedstrom assesses that the gap between existing practice and the potential for electronic data will narrow with the possibility of exploiting metadata in automated systems, so archivists can capture, rather than create, descriptive information.

Hurley, C. (2005). Parallel provenance: (1) What if anything is archival description? Archives and Manuscripts 33(1), 110-145.

Hurley, a thirty-year veteran of archives programs in Australia and New Zealand, notes that through description, archivists create a single perspective of provenance and a fixed internal structure for the collection. Hurley views provenance as more than simple relationships between units that tell stories of context and structure. He argues that the dynamic relationships and formation of records and the functions in which they took part cannot be properly described within the narrowness of the internationally standardized idea of archival description. Instead, he suggests a parallel provenance that contextualizes alternative narratives about the records into a single ambient description with multiple provenances that enriches the evidential meaning of the records.

Millar, L. (2006). An obligation of trust: Speculations on accountability and description. American Archivist 69(1), 60-78.

Millar, an archival and information management consultant and educator, considers the role of archival description for organizational and social accountability. Comparing the answerability of traditional post-hoc archival description to continuum-based records management, she finds that while they are suitable for their fields, neither ensures the wider accountability of institutions to themselves or to the community at large. She envisions blending the accountability strengths of the post-hoc and continuum-based models into a larger, more holistic framework. This description architecture will support expansive institutional and social accountability to ensure the integrity of records of enduring value and the larger spectrum of functions of the organization responsible for creating and preserving those records.

Peters, V. (2005). Developing archival context standards for functions in the higher education sector. Journal of the Society of Archivists 26(1), 75-86.

Peters, Research Archivist, Glasgow University Archive Services, discusses a research project, which used records of Scottish higher education institutions and made the results available on GASHE (Gateway to Archives of Scottish Higher Education). Believing that archival description based on traditional principles of provenance and original order is limited, Peters borrows from records management practices in which the fundamental relationships of records are their functions and activities, rather than their creators. Description of function is more helpful for archivists and researchers, rather than description based on a single, static arrangement, such as administrative structure, which cannot fully preserve the context of the records. This functional provenance approach allowed records of Scottish institutions, dating back to 1215, to be described seamlessly with current records.

Pitti, D. (2005). Technology and the transformation of archival description. Journal of Archival Organization 3(2/3), 9-22.

Pitti, Associate Director, Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, University of Virginia, suggests liberating archival description from the limits of traditional media through technology by integrating the functional strengths of markup and database technologies. Traditional archival description has employed a “single records-oriented apparatus,” such as the finding aid, which describes all records with a common creator, which can be complicated for mixed-provenance records. Pitti notes that by developing semantics and structures for records and their complex interrelations, flexible, dynamic, and sustainable descriptive systems can be created which are more useful than traditional finding aids.

Yeo, G. (2008). Custodial history, provenance, and the description of personal records. Libraries & the Cultural Record 44(1), 50-64.

Yeo, Lecturer, Department of Information Studies, University College London, argues that traditional methods of description do not capture the complex provenance of personal papers, such as those of Sir Richard Fanshaw (1608-66). Archivists need to reinterpret traditional binary distinctions between “organic” fonds and “artificial” collections with more complex relationships of the records; fonds are groups determined by context of creation, while collection is determined by custodianship. To assess the challenges of description, Yeo surveyed 120 description projects at 46 UK archival institutions by University College London graduate students from 2003 to 2007. He found that their provenance lacked information about the nature and historical development of the collection and its custodial history.

[1] MacNeil, H. (1995). Metadata strategies and archival description: Comparing apples to oranges. Archivaria 39, 22.

[2] The following countries’ perspectives on description were represented by the selected journals: Australia (Archives and Manuscripts), Canada (Archivaria), the United Kingdom and Ireland (Journal of the Society of Archivists), and the United States (American Archivist, Collection Management, and Libraries & the Cultural Record). Archival Science and Journal of Archival Organization are considered international journals by their editorial boards. 

If you like archives, memory, and legacy as much as I do, you might consider signing up for my email list. Every few weeks I send out a newsletter with new articles and exclusive content for readers. It’s basically my way of keeping in touch with you and letting you know what’s going on. Your information is protected and I never spam.

Follow me on Pinterest | Instagram | Twitter | LinkedIn | Facebook