Posted by: bluesyemre | January 7, 2019

How do #Archivists describe collections? (or, how to read a finding aid)


Anyone doing archival research will eventually find themselves using archival descriptions. Archival descriptions are embodied in what are often called “finding aids.” They are the archival world’s equivalent to a catalogue entry in a library catalogue.

Most people are familiar with interpreting a library catalogue entry (say in an online library database). Getting the most out of archival descriptions, however, requires a little basic orientation. Once you learn something about the concepts, terminology, and techniques that archivists use to represent the uniqueness and complexity of archives, you’ll be much better placed to find the material you need using archival descriptions.

In this post, we’ll walk you through an archival description by dissecting a portion of an adapted finding aid here at the Peel Archives; however, the vocabulary and tips we’ll pass along will serve you well in using archives in general.

A window on what’s there

A library catalogue entry is not the same thing as the book it is describing; rather it’s an overview of a book’s most representative features. These include the book’s author, title, publisher, date of publication, number of pages, and whether the book is illustrated.

Information like this gives you ways to find the book in the first place (by searching for books, say, by a particular author); it also helps you figure out if the book will be useful or interesting to you. And of course, a library catalogue also helps the library to keep track of their book collections.

In a similar way, archival descriptions offer a summary of what researchers can expect of particular archival collections and their components. Archivists use descriptions to keep track of the content of collections, but ultimately descriptions are produced with the researcher in mind. Without these windows on collections, no would know what collections existed or what was in them.

Before we look more closely at a description, it’s useful to think about how archival descriptions come to be. Remember that archival records are unique: no group of records is like any other. So when faced with producing a summary of a collection, archivists are beginning from scratch every time.

How Archivists Describe Collections

In our post How do Archivists Organize Collections?  we looked at how archivists transform accumulations of records into useable collections. Part of this process involves intellectually and physically organizing the materials within the collection to clarify how records were generated or used by the creator of the records whose life they illuminate.

To help in all this, the archivist will research the context that led to the creation of the records, including the life and activities of the person or people who produced them. Not surprisingly, during the process of arrangement the archivist will get to know the collection (and, in a way, its creator) intimately. Most archivists will tell you that the process of investigation and exploration is one of the most enjoyable parts of their job; it’s like putting together a puzzle where the picture that emerges is part of someone else’s life.

The archivist summarizes her findings and work on the collection in an archival description. The description will be the first point of contact for researchers: it will be their introduction and guide to the collection.

The way the archival description is laid out, however, is not up to the whim of individual archivists. Rather, archivists follow recommendations that archival experts have developed over many years.

Archival standards

Archivists have developed (and are still developing) standardized ways of characterizing important features of archival collections. Different countries have slightly different descriptive standards and terminologies, but there is a broad international consensus on what it is vital for us to note.

There are many good things about uniform standards. They form a checklist for archivists, to make sure we’ve considered and captured information. They make it easier for different archives to share information. And they make it easier for researchers to quickly grasp the general attributes of collection.

But there are challenges for first-time users of archives too. Descriptions of archival collections are generally more complex than library book catalogue entries because archival collections themselves are multilayered and multifaceted. And this means there is some specialized vocabulary to learn.

The hierarchy of arrangement – and description

Archival descriptions reflect the hierarchical levels of arrangement that we looked at our arrangement post, so we’ll review those levels again here.

We’ve noted the supreme importance of keeping archival records together based on their provenance, or where they came from. The body of records gathered or generated by a person or group tells us something about its origin. A group of records originating from the same source is called a fonds, and it’s why archivists tend to speak in terms of groups of records rather than individual items. (Archivists in some countries use alternative terms for a fonds, calling it a creator’s “record group,” “papers,”  or “records,”  but they still retain the concept of the fonds.)

We’ve also noted the archival principle of original order:  relationships between records should be preserved because they tell us more about the records than do the individual items taken alone.

To reflect the internal organization of archival collections (and the life behind them), archivists may further subdivide a fonds into series and subseries, which are groupings based on factors like the function of the records, or other  themes or categories. Then, either the fonds (if series aren’t used) or the series themselves will be further subdivided into files. Lastly, files contain items, like individual letters or photographs.

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