Archival description and discovery layers

Some years ago, Campbell Soups ran a campaign about their thick and rich soup range, one of which included Australia’s own Rose Porteous (I can’t find the link, perhaps someone cottoned on?). Anyway, I always think of that and, more academically, of Clifford Geertz’s ‘thick description’ when I think about the ways in which archives can describe their holdings. It’s not always the case, of course. Sometimes, time and pressure mean that holdings and archival authorities are described in minimalistic terms, but the potential for rich and thick description still exists, especially when contextual relationships between creators, functions and records are fully developed. It’s this that sets us aside from library description, and why archives generally don’t use the library MARC (MAchine Readable Catalogue) formats, even though there is a special set for archives (MARC-AMC).  Libraries describe the  individual elements of the soup – the pea, the bean, the meaty chunk, the liquid – on their own merit. The author statement can bring these elements together but doesn’t give a sense of how they interact. Archives describe the soup, and then the elements.

Given this difference, it’s been interesting to see how different archives have been included into broader, generally library based discovery layers. Our own TROVE is one such instance, and I’ve previously flagged how both the ANU Archives and PROV have added content to TROVE in my #GovHack posts. I’ve not seen much about what compromises had to be made, so I was very interested when the Digital Repository of Ireland brought out its guide to including archival description a few months ago.  The Digital Public Library of America has recently released a white paper for similar content. Both the DRI guidelines and the DPLA white paper use EAD (encoded archival description) as the major tool for exploring and exporting information. Both work within a fonds based hierarchical descriptive framework, and focus on the archival object or levels of description. The links made to archival authority and to function (Chris Hurley’s doer and deed) are minimal at best.

The DRI guideline is, by its nature, prescriptive. If you are looking for a good description of the elements within EAD and how they can be matched to standard elements in descriptive practice, then this is a good place to start.  The descriptions of each required and recommended element are clear, and provide some food for thought in Australian practice with regards to name, place and subject indexing of archival holdings. I think it would be relatively easy to implement the recommendations for a TROVE like discovery system (although, we have, as yet, to investigate why or whether we want one, and what we would expect to get out of it).

The DPLA white paper is, also by its nature, more complex, looking at comparative descriptive practices, meditating on the differences between library and archival description, and aggregated (fonds, collection, series, even Australian item level) description. It focuses, however, on individual digital objects, either a product of digitisation or a natively created in the digital environment, such as pages of books or individual photographs in an album. The working group looked at both description at a higher aggregated level (using the term ‘collection’) and for individual objects. Again, a number of examples are given for both, and some recommendations come from that. The working group is to be commended for the way in which they have approached the task at hand. Like the DRI guidelines, the white paper raises some important questions for Australian archivists looking at either a federated system, as proposed by Chris Hurley and others at the recent ASA 2016 conference, or in support of further work with TROVE.

 

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inthemailbox

Archivist, historian, avid reader

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