Archival Descriptive Process: Our Quest for Standardization

by Moya K. Mason

Introduction: Following the Lead of Libraries

Charles Jewett, Librarian and Assistant Secretary at the Smithsonian, strongly believed that a national library was needed which would oversee a collective catalogue for public libraries across the United States. It would permit scholars access to important books and manuscripts, show where intellectual disparities existed, and act as a facilitator for the progression of knowledge (Jewett 1853,54). To accomplish his goal of the 'union catalogue', he proposed the use of stereotyped plates, a series of preserved, mass-produced separate titles to be composed in adherence to a set of very strict rules. Uniformity was Jewett's major concern, advocating the strict and unwavering practice of following guidelines in cataloguing to avoid errors and confusion (Jewett 1853,61). His vision was of an American national library and included the possibility of incorporating European countries as well. The key was standardization and a strict uniformity to procedures if there could be any chance of success.

Charles Jewett did not live to see how the Library of Congress developed into a depository library, along with the National Library of Canada, and the Legal Deposit Office of the British Library, among others, nor did he get an opportunity to follow the transition of cataloguing into the system of sharing and cooperation it is today. It may be just a pipe dream to allow users access to the vast bibliographic universe, but it is moving closer to reality with standardization and the real possibility of an Internet-based worldwide virtual library.

Automation of library cataloguing departments became the way libraries could participate in sharing catalogue copy and get rid of their backlogs. It may also be the impetus for archives to become interconnected. As David Bearman writes, "we will increasingly be dependent upon automation, an arena in which standards are critical" (Bearman 1989,515). It would be foolhardy for anyone to say that the road to standardization is a smooth one, and it certainly was a bumpy journey for librarians, causing a splintering of the library community for a while. However, the same kinds of realities are affecting archives and libraries alike, ranging from budgetary cutbacks, reduction of staff, and the need to provide better access to the public. Last, but not least, is the need to continually justify the existence of archives. This paper will examine the myriad of problems that arise in the development of descriptive standards in relation to the nature of archival material and from the traditional practices of archival description.

An Overview

The last few decades have seen a great increase in academic scholarship and a parallel explosion in information. Both libraries and archives play an active role in the preservation of knowledge and are affected by how much information is expected to be documented and made available to the public, especially with the loss of staff and budgetary cutbacks. Archival description standards have become more important in the twentieth century because of an increase in archival use by the public (Duranti 1993,51). Historically, archived materials were preserved to keep track of past events, allowing perpetual memory to be preserved; not for public use. The archivist would simply retrieve records as they were needed and undertake research projects on behalf of scholars.

Archives were used extensively for academic research in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when historians were hired to provide descriptive documents. These tools proved to be instrumental in the retrieval of many important records, thereby enhancing the value of the repositories (Duranti 1993,50). The twentieth century was a turning point for archivists, since they commonly began to deal with huge, open fonds and more members of the public. It was virtually impossible to service everyone individually. As a result, the development of better finding aides became a necessity (Duranti 1993,52). Duff and Haworth write that "[r]ecords originally created to document a transaction began to be used as much for their informational value as for their legal or evidential value (Duff 1990,27). The only way to get rid of backlogs in archives and to allow access to a large number of users, is through automated systems:

However, because of the precision of thinking that computers demand, the lack of standards has hindered the implementation of any comprehensive automated solution (Manual 1988,5.1).

Archival Description: Its Principles and Purposes

Archival description consists of four principles, which are directly linked to the arrangement of the materials. The principle of provenance means that the materials of a particular organization or family must be arranged and described together, and not combined with records that were created separately. Archival description is based upon provenance, and not arrangement (Duff 1990). Provenance demands that the records be arranged and described as they were when they arrived in the archives, so that the contextual meaning of the materials will not be lost (Manual 1988,5.3). The records will lose their value, "if they are not authentic, uncorrupted evidence of their creator's acts/thoughts-in-context" (Pederson 1994,56). Secondly, 'sanctity of original order' needs to be retained in order for the users to discern how an individual or group organized their affairs, the methods of retrieval they had in place, and what activities were carried on (Manual 1988,5.4). Thirdly, 'arrangement determines description', with arrangement always coming first, identifying provenance and original order, and then description, closely emulating the established arrangement (Manual 1988,5.4). Finally, 'description proceeds from the general to the specific', beginning with the fonds and moving through the inverted pyramid from series, to files, to individual items (Manual 1988,5.5). In Canada, the fonds are considered the fundamental unit of description, from which, all else flows.

All four of these principles have an underlying and overriding purpose, and that is to provide access to the public by "establishing intellectual control ... through the preparation of finding aids, such as inventories, catalogue cards, and indexes" (Manual 1988,5.3). Ultimately, as Ann Pederson points out in Unlocking Hidden Treasures Through Description: Comments on Archival Voyages of Discovery:

As documents of response, archives form a tangible, collective memory, which is maintained for selective recall--to establish precedents, to make plans, to assess progress, to account--and to act as the conscience of society. Archives provide unselfconscious evidence of what happened, the sources required to demonstrate fiscal, political, and social accountability, or lack thereof (Pederson 1994,52).

By describing each fonds in an accurate manner using prescribed authority-controlled standards of description, and by connecting them to indexes, archivists can provide access to often untapped sources of very important information. Hugo Stibbe maintains that descriptive records are bound together by the provenance of the fonds, and therefore, provenance acts as the main entry in archival descriptions (Stibbe 1992,116).

Furthermore, if every archive in Canada were using a set method for standardized description, such as Rules for Archival Description (RAD), to develop finding aids, then records would be easier to retrieve and exchange through automated systems (Manual 1988,5.3), and a union database would be created (Weber 1989,511). By having no standard manner in which to proceed means that confusion and erratic practices are the rule rather than the exception (Manual 1988,5.1). As Lisa Weber discussed in a 1989 article, archivists have always found developing and using standardized descriptive practices problematic, believing that since archival materials are not alike, they cannot be described using a standard system (Weber 1989,506). It is true that archival materials are not like books and journals. A copy of Anna Karenina is indistinguishable from another copy and can be catalogued the same way in Washington, as in Red Deer, Alberta.

When it comes to archival materials, one set of records will not have the exact set of qualities as another, but there are certainly enough similarities to enable a systematic set of guidelines to be used by everyone, especially when the outcome is better access and retrieval for users. However, in Origin and Development of the Concept of Archival Description, Luciana Duranti argues that the reason there "is no universally recognized conceptualization of archival description" is because it was never an archival function to begin with, but rather, something that has had a cyclical existence, affected by the ever-changing whims of the people (Duranti 1993,52-53). Duranti claims the only two archival functions that have continually been carried out are preservation and communication. In other words, as a means to facilitate evidential value (Duranti 1993,52).

As Duff and Haworth point out in The Reclamation of Archival Description: The Canadian Perspective, archivists have historically used some kind of system to describe the materials that arrive in their repositories, but "until recently, standards for archival description did not exist" (Duff 1990,27). Depending upon which country or institution they were working in, archivists have recorded a variety of information using manuals written by other archivists, or themselves, rather than standard ones (Duff 1990,27). Justifiably, Duff and Haworth point out that these manuals played an integral role in the development of systematic approaches to description and should be looked upon as valuable precursors to national manuals such as Rules for Archival Description (RAD) (Duff 1990,27), just as the laser printers have their roots in the old dot matrix printers.

The Nature of the Work: Isolation, Local Practices, and Lack of Standards

The small enclaves of archivists found throughout the world differ greatly from librarians in some important ways that characterize the nature of their work and effect it in many ways. The number of people working in archival management are few when compared with librarians, and consequently, there is more isolation within the profession. A professional librarian usually has many peers working with them in any given setting. Not so with archivists, who often work alone or with one other person, utilizing student or casual help when working on bigger projects. Archives can be isolating, with few new ideas coming from colleagues on a regular basis. Isolation, coupled with local practices, makes for a lack of descriptive standards and often an inability to conceive the benefits of a new system.

Fundamental problems exist in the profession, including a lack of consensus about what the role of archival description actually is, other than providing access to the records, and in what direction it is going (Bearman 1989,511). Overall, it is difficult for archivists to link "various kinds of finding aids or know how to integrate them into a whole descriptive system," and to what depth indexing and access should be provided (Bearman 1989,511). Without a quorum of agreement, how can the money needed for development, implementation, and monitoring of a standard system be allocated? (Bearman 1989,512) There is also concern about who will monitor archivists on a daily basis to ensure they are adhering to the standards and real anxiety about rushing into a standardized system that may quickly become obsolete or produce a series of dogmas that will have to be followed. Ann Pederson points out that the descriptive standards system put together by Steven Hensen in the United States (APPM) and based on MARC, is expected to reach the end of its usefulness as a technology in the near future and a new strategy will be needed to replace it (Pederson 1994,50). In addition, she sees inherent problems in the Canadian system (RAD), which will be discussed later in this essay. However, without the adoption of new ways of doing things, which is "a fundamental assumption of descriptive standards," then no universal standards will be in the offing any time soon (Book Review 1991,165). As Duff and Haworth argue, "experience has shown administrators that the development costs for automated systems are considerably reduced if standards are in place before, rather than after, automated systems are implemented (Duff 1990,32).


The Bureau of Canadian Archivists produced the first draft of Rules for Archival Description or RAD, which gives those working in the field a series of rules and guidelines to follow for describing the materials that come into their archives. RAD is based on AACR2 (considered the bible of cataloguing librarians), the International Standard Bibliographic Description (ISBDs), and the ideology that fonds is the basis for description (Duff 1990,32). Long in development, its standards:

Will also provide a structure for automating your fonds level descriptions. Combined with powerful indexing software, automation of fonds level descriptions can provide precise retrieval of records by any of the descriptive elements you choose (Manual 1988,5.13).

That includes form, name, and subject indexes, using authority-controlled vocabulary found in reference tools such as the Nova Scotia Subject Headings (Manual 1988,5.14). Using standardized terminology helps users and archivists in the retrieval of information and precipitates the sharing of resources. Its system of description emphasizes title and statement of responsibility; dates of creation; physical description area; archival description area; and note area. Of course, the purpose of going through the archival description process using the rules of RAD is to produce and provide finding aids for archival materials - finding aids, such as summary and descriptive inventories, and repository guides (Manual 1988,5.12). It has been designed to develop archival descriptions for every possible media type (Book Reviews 1991,163).

The Manual of Archival Description 2 or MAD2 (1989), is Britain's contribution to the quest for descriptive standardization, created in part, as a rejection of AACR2. It has the capacity for compatibility built in, stressing that "it is no longer acceptable that library and archival standards for the description of their materials should continue to be so irreconcilable (Michael Cook as quoted by Duff 1990,28). The same year brought American archivists an AACR2-based format called Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts: A Cataloguing Manual for Archival Repositories, Historical Societies, and Manuscript Libraries, or APPM2, for short. APPM2 and RAD provide the guidelines for the preparation of a catalogue record, guidelines that MAD2 reject as inappropriate for archival materials (Book Reviews 1991,163).

Problems with RAD have already surfaced, including the fact that it is fonds-based, which has various interpretations (Haworth 1992,76). This is problematic because many archivists, especially those working outside of Canada, are not sure what constitutes a fonds. They cannot describe what they do not understand (Book Reviews 1991,165). As Keith Stotyn makes clear, until the basic concepts are understood, there will not be widespread use of the Canadian system (Book Reviews 1991,166). However, the work done by Canadian archivists is extensive and has helped to increase a deeper understanding of description's principles and purposes (Manual 1988,5.3).


In Implementing the Concept of Fonds: Primary Access Point, Multilevel Description and Authority Control, Hugo Stibbe writes that automation has been the catalyst for change in the world of archives and has caused the need for authority control and standardization (Stibbe 1992,110). For archivists, the road to standardization has been a difficult one, but the visionaries or futurists have long understood how the profession must change to survive. As governments, institutions, and organizations increasingly use digitized information sources, new ways to archive information must be developed. Archivists have long realized that they must lead the way when it comes to the development of reliable computer software systems for archives that are "based on standard data structures" (Bearman 1989,511). There is also the realization that the justification for archives will have to include better access. In other words, a system of standardization to facilitate automation. Perhaps international standardization would be cheaper and more sensible than separate systems for the long term, but how can we expect agreement on archival practices in a world that is characterized by division and strife? Sometimes it seems as if it is easier to disagree.

It's not so easy to solve all the inherent problems found in the profession of archival management; not so easy to put everything in one small, neat package when there are problems of isolation, distance, cutbacks, and perception. Low profile professions are often burdened with a lack of funds. The public does not have a very clear understanding of what archives are and how important they are for the sustainability of cultural memory. Archivists such as Ann Pederson are also afraid that any consensus now would mean we are racing "headlong towards preconceived goals, such as the hegemony of MARC, MAD, or RAD ... missing the valuable new directions and lessons the process itself will yield" (Pederson 1994,59). Isn't that like saying we shouldn't buy computers until they stop advancing in speed?

Charles Jewett would be happy to see that archivists are trying to come together for the sake of a common good, with a possibility that an international database could be in the offing. As Canadians, there is a sense that we are leading the way towards a system that could eventually allow enough standardization so that a child from Chernobyl could access the Vatican Archives online. Wendy Duff is right when she says that archivists should concentrate their energies on the users of archives and their needs, work hard to make sure information is captured, and "identify processes that protect the integrity and impartiality of records" (Duff 1996,38). By elevating the standards and bringing more exposure to the profession, archivists will go a long way in endearing themselves to the public.

Related Papers

Bibliographic Control for Archival Materials
Archival Arrangement: Ensuring Access to Materials
Outreach Programs: Can They Really Help Archives?
Glynn A. Leyshon Fonds Finding Aid


A Manual for Small Archives. Vancouver, 1988, revised 1994.

Bearman, David. Description Standards: A Framework for Action. American Archivist, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Fall 1989), pp. 514-519.

Book Reviews: Manual of Archival Description (Sharon Thibodeau) and Rules for Archival Description (Keith Stotyn) in Archivaria, No. 32 (Summer 1991), pp. 162-166.

Duff, Wendy. 1996. Will Metadata Replace Archival Description: A Commentary. Archivaria, No. 39, pp. 33-38.

Duff, Wendy M. and Kent M. Haworth. The Reclamation of Archival Description: The Canadian Perspective. Archivaria, No. 31 (Winter 1990-91), pp. 26-35.

Duranti, Luciana. Origin and Development of the Concept of Archival Description. Archivaria, No. 35 (Spring 1993), pp. 47-54.

Haworth, Kent. The Development of Descriptive Standards in Canada: A Progress Report. Archivaria, No. 34 (Summer 1992), pp. 75-90.

Jewett, Charles. Smithsonian Catalogue System, pp. 48- 61 in Foundations of Cataloguing, ed. by M. Carpenter and E. Svenonius. Littleton: Libraries Unlimited, 1853.

Pederson, Ann. Unlocking Hidden Treasures Through Description: Comments on Archival Voyages of Discovery. Archivaria, No. 37 (Spring 1994), pp. 47-63.

Stibbe, Hugo. Implementing the Concept of Fonds: Primary Access Point, Multilevel Description and Authority Control. Archivaria, No. 34 (Summer 1992), pp. 109-137.

Weber, Lisa B. Archival Description Standards: Concepts, Principles, and Methodologies. American Archivist, Vol. 52, No. 4 (Fall 1989), pp. 504-513.

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