More about Description: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections

You can order Description: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections from the Rowman & Littlefield site (and save 20% by using the promotional code 7S14ARCH). The Table of Contents is available there, and you can also read the pre-publication reviews from Kathleen Roe and Bill Landis.

To help give you a better idea of what’s in the book, here’s an excerpt from the Introduction: 

Most archivists would agree that the reason we collect and preserve the materials in our collections is so that they can be accessed and used. However, for the majority of researchers, it is the descriptions of collections that must first be successfully accessed and understood in order to locate the right materials. Effective access depends on good description. However, what constitutes “good” description—or, perhaps, “good enough” description—is a topic of constant and necessary discussion in the profession. An essential part of that discussion is how best to tackle creating those descriptions. How should limited resources be used or supplemented? What strategies or approaches should be employed? What kinds of descriptions make the most sense to the most people looking for the kinds of materials we have? At what level—collection, series, folder, or item—should materials be described? Technology plays a key role in both facilitating description and in making it accessible. What tools make sense for different kinds of archives and how can they be used? The answers to those questions are as diverse as the range of repositories responsible for historical collections.

Description: Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections explores how archives of different sizes and types have approached these questions, all with the common goal of increasing the accessibility of their holdings. These case studies show a range of concerns and strategies, but all were selected because they demonstrate ideas that could be transferred into many other settings. They can serve as models, sources of inspiration, or starting points for new discussions. This volume is useful to those working in archives and special collections as well as other cultural heritage organizations and provides ideas ranging from those that require long-term planning and coordination to ones that can be immediately implemented. It also provides students and educators in archives, library, and public history graduate programs a resource for understanding the varieties of ways materials are being described in the field today and the kinds of strategies archivists are using to ensure collections can be found by the people who want to use them.

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Deconstructing description into its essential elements, and including case studies that addressed all of these elements, provides an overarching rationale for the selection of contributions to this volume. In a broad sense, the description function can be broken down by considering:

  • What is being described?
  • Who is doing the work?
  • How is the work being done?
  • How are the descriptions made available?

The authors of the case studies in this collection answer those questions in a variety of ways, but each has found solutions that worked for his or her own needs. Although the use of standards enters into most of their discussions, standards by themselves don’t dictate uniformity of solutions. All the authors have approached their problems by considering what will work best in their own environments and for their users. Internal needs for better description often play a role as well; increased intellectual control can be used to more effectively manage and provide reference services for collections. But perhaps the common thread running through all of these examples of innovative practices is a commitment to increasing the discoverability of archival collections. In what ways, then, do the case studies in this collection demonstrate innovation in these aspects of description?

Several case studies show different approaches to the question of what should be described. The article contributed by Erin Faulder, Veronica Martzahl, and Eliot Wilczek about their experience implementing Encoded Archival Context (EAC) at Tufts University, as well as Clare Paterson’s case study about the Empowering the User project at the University of Glasgow, both reflect the recent trend in archival description to describe the creators and contributors to collections, as well as the materials themselves. Both projects also explored, with similar conclusions, the viability of describing functions separately from the materials that resulted from them.

Given its prominence in the professional discourse, solutions to the problem of efficiently describing materials in processing backlogs are necessary to include. Matthew B. Gorham and Chela Scott Weber describe their experiences conducting a comprehensive collections survey at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Eira Tansey shares a solution to a problem of a different kind: her multistage approach to migrating a backlog of finding aids into formats for 21st-century access, as well as for strategically approaching the backlog of undescribed collections at Tulane University’s Louisiana Research Collection.

The description of single items has not traditionally been a priority in most archival repositories, but James Gerencser relates how access to easy-to-use technology inspired the Dickinson College Archives and Special Collections to tackle describing a long-standing legacy of single items with the goal of attracting new users. Similarly, a collection of ephemera at the University of Alberta with both a long history and an active acquisition policy inspires a pragmatic approach to item-level cataloging. Technology serves as both a platform and a driver for Kelcy Shepherd and Kate Gerrity’s case study on establishing workflows for description of digitized materials at Amherst College and for Jackie Dean and Meg Tuomala’s report on their progress describing born-digital collections at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Although professionally trained archivists and special collections librarians are primarily responsible for the final products of descriptive processes, using a variety of people to contribute to or create descriptive information is another way archive personnel are exploring new ways to approach description. Crowdsourcing is a strategy much on the minds of many archivists, and Zoё D’Arcy discusses the success of “the Hive” at the National Archives of Australia in harnessing volunteer labor online to help make creator-supplied inventory lists accessible and searchable. Evyn Kropf needed to find a way to engage a very different kind of “crowd” to assist in the cataloging of Islamic manuscripts at the University of Michigan, and her case study discusses both their successful and less-successful attempts to do so.

Kristjana Kristinsdóttir relates a radical approach to the problems of scale and limited resources by the National Archives of Iceland: making records creators responsible for the arrangement and description of their records, to archival standards, prior to their accession into the archives. Through a gradual exploration of policies and approaches, as well as patient work, Kristinsdóttir has a successful model that may work in other settings.

Good communication and training were key to the eventual success at the National Archives of Iceland, and Tansey brings up those factors again as key to success in working with the vendors who supported parts of the finding-aid migration project at Tulane. An important aspect of Shepherd and Gerrity’s case study about the description of digitized materials is the use of library cataloging staff to create item-level metadata and the adjustments that were necessary when making that shift. Employing graduate students to assist in archival processing is a common practice, but the case studies from Kropf and Tansey, as well as Farnel, Cole, Desmarais, Holizki, and Papineau at the University of Alberta, all discuss how descriptive projects were specifically designed to best take advantage of the skills the students had to offer. Gerencser goes further, outlining a project that was not only designed to be staffed primarily by undergraduate students but also for which undergraduate learning is seen as a key outcome.

The question of how the description work described in the case studies was carried out has answers as individual as the approaches they describe, and in many ways those approaches were shaped by the resources available. Some, like the work at the Brooklyn Historical Society and the University of Michigan, were funded by grants and involved the hiring of project staff. Grant funding also allowed the projects at Tufts and Glasgow University to create the technological environments they needed to create and publish EAC records. Securing additional funding at Tulane allowed Tansey to tap into an existing relationship with vendors to help support finding-aid migration. In contrast, the other projects shared in the book demonstrate the creative use of existing funds and resources to explore new models for getting materials described.

Systems of some kind provide the infrastructure necessary for creating and sharing descriptions. The projects at the University of Alberta and Dickinson College take advantage of systems already in use to support description in new ways, while dedicated project sites were created for “the Hive” and Empowering the User. Open-source tools are used by some institutions—the Archivists’ Toolkit at the Brooklyn Historical Society and Amherst College, and Archon at Tulane—while for others, propriety systems make more sense.

Another way to consider the work discussed in the case studies is whether they represent projects or changes to the program. The projects at Brooklyn, Michigan, Glasgow, and Tulane are just that: projects, with defined starting and ending points.On the other hand, the innovative practices displayed by Tufts, Amherst, University of Alberta, Dickinson College, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the National Archives of Iceland were integrated, or are planned to be integrated, into standard workflows. For the majority in both cases, however, the work outlined in the case studies has generated policies and practices that are being integrated into the regular descriptive workflows of the repository.

Because increased access is the goal of all these innovative descriptive practices, all the products they created are being made available online, often in more than one way. Some are using software like LibGuides (University of Alberta), Drupal (Dickinson), or WordPress (Brooklyn Historical Society), while others are using unique websites (the National Archives of Australia, University of Michigan, and the University of Glasgow). Some practices result in the creation of traditional finding aids, while others create descriptions in other formats. In most cases, descriptive information is being shared through the existing online catalog or website, often in addition to other platforms. Increasing discoverability, within resource limitations, is a factor all the authors considered, and for all of them the primary platform for discovery is the Web.

Although each case study in this collection describes a specific response to a challenge or opportunity, I think each also reflects a philosophy of experimentation that is perhaps the most critical ingredient necessary for any organization interested in developing its own “innovative” practices. In this regard, I hope this book and the others in the series encourage all readers to consider how their own work could benefit from the exploration of new ideas and tools. This series of books can, by definition, include only a small sample of the kinds of approaches being developed by archives and special collections around the world to meet the challenges of staying relevant and adaptable in today’s complex environment. These case studies give readers many useful ideas to consider—and quite possibly the inspiration to come up with tomorrow’s innovations.


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