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Access and Description Reconsidered

What exactly is archival access, and how does archival description make it possible? I feel like that in some form or another I've been struggling with this question throughout my career. Recently, this blog post from The Top Shelf, the blog of the University of Texas at San Antonio Archives and Special Collections Department, came across my radar, wherein they write (emphasis in original):

UTSA Archives and Special Collections is among the growing number of archives to create an online presence for every one of its collections. ... We were able to utilize inventories generated by former and current collection assistants to create guides to the collection with folder-level and box-level descriptions. The project resulted in access to more than 130 collections and 2000 linear feet of materials.

What defines that accessibility? I certainly don't intend to be a negative Nancy about this - adding finding aids and other descriptive metadata about collections is obviously useful. But how has it necessarily increased access to the materials themselves?

Archivists in part provide descriptive, contextual, and structural metadata about collections, but ultimately, the products of our knowledge work are merely representations of a complex whole, teeming with relationships between facts, assumptions, and wild-arsed guesses. Thinking of arrangement and description as representation is not a new idea; cf. Yakel, "Archival Representation" (Archival Science 3, no. 1 (2003): 1-25) and Karen Gracy's class on Archival Representation at Pitt. But really, what is the end goal of that representation and how does that converge with what users and our professional peers (e.g. library and museum professionals) expect?

Our professional community is still a bit too sheltered, I'm afraid. I really disagree with Russell James' recent post "Why not 'records science'?" for a few reasons (just as I agree with him on a few points...for what it's worth, there is records science; it just happens to be called archivistics or archival science!). Archivists still have a ridiculous amount to learn about information science. It might not have seemed relevant during whatever graduate program you attended, but really, it's ultra-important!

I'm reading David C. Blair's Language and Representation in Information Retrieval (Elsevier Science & Technology, 1990) right now and am totally riveted by it. This and other works consistently prove to me that we have a lot of important lessons to learn from our counterparts in other fields, namely how metadata, indexing, and the like actually form sets of representations that unavoidably mediate access between a person with an information need and that information. This isn't new research, and it's not just a problem with electronic records. It's just incredibly unfortunate that there isn't a really good community within the profession to discuss this stuff.

You haven't heard the last of me on this yet, and I know this post has been quite rambling. Until next time...



  • 💬 Jonathan Rochkind at October 16, 2009, 10:25 UTC:

    I would again recommend a buncha stuff written by David Bearman on this topic, maybe ten or more years ago.

  • 💬 Thomas L at October 19, 2009, 21:04 UTC:

    Mark, can you please clarify your use of term description in your statement: "Archivists in part provide descriptive, contextual, and structural metadata about collections..."

    I am confused as to whether you are referring to archival description performed by archivists working hands-on with a collection in a processing situation.

    Or, if you are referring to the computer systems which digest these descriptions, alphabetize them, and make available searches by keyword and subject.

    If the former, perhaps you could point to an archival collection you have processed or described. Archival description relies on context, therefore an example of an actual collection could prove useful to direct the dialogue to a practical level, out from which we could again return to the general.

    If the latter, could you please describe why the technologist should concern themselves with archives in particular which are, in all senses, described in much further detail by humanists through books, chapters, dissertations and articles. Systems of categorization, finding aids and website sites, present bare essentials and necessarily lack in-depth descriptions found in books, bibliographies and research material published elsewhere.

    Otherwise, carry on,


  • 💬 Thomas L at October 22, 2009, 09:26 UTC:

    So, I understand how my comment above might be the cause of some confusion. Perhaps, therefore, you could respond, or react, to the two following questions.

    In your current position of "Applications Developer in the Digital Experience Group of the New York Public Library"...

    1) To which archival collections have you added a description?

    2) Of those archival collections described, how many researchers working with them have you assisted?

    I wonder about these questions because your blog post is about both access and description.

    And, again, carry on,
    Thomas L

  • 💬 Jane Stevenson at October 29, 2009, 20:02 UTC:

    Wild-arsed guesses. Ah yes, I remember them well! (When I was a real archivist and not just peddling and meddling with archival description).

    Description is, surely, required in order to enable access. But maybe archivists need to be more aware of the active role that description plays in shaping and influencing access. I've recnetly heard that the ICA are probably not going to be reviewing ISAD(G) in any depth. Shame I think.

  • 💬 Thomas L at November 2, 2009, 21:44 UTC:

    Though not exactly how I would describe the binary, I do like this distinction @Jane Stevenson creates between "real archivists" and those "just peddling and meddling with archival description." If the latter are not adding any original description, and not even working with actual collections, a parasitic relationship can result.

    The hope of the archival description peddler then becomes to remove data created by real archivists and upload and rearrange it via new, ever-changing networks. This is excellent and yields some interesting work. But at the level of practice, will be best achieved by actual web / database designers, and not folks a few years out of Library school.

    I will argue that most user of archives, find archives through books and humanities research. Usage is the result of critical thinking and bibliographic analysis. These patrons are also working to create new works in the humanities and social science. As mentioned above, description peddlers are rarely seen using archives. Thus, the work of the description peddler is fine and dandy in so far as everyone at the table is a technologist. But they're achievements are lost on a good number of people who simply want to get to collections which they know to exist. Box 13, so to speak, of a 133 Box collection.

    Nothing will change, but there is risk of real archivists erasing their professional standing in the humanities by adopting the philosophy of description peddlers.

    Again, as usual, carry on,

  • 💬 Hillel at November 3, 2009, 20:27 UTC:

    @Thomas L, I don't really understand your point(s) in your comments above, and in fact I'm wondering if you have one besides leveling thinly veiled personal attacks at Mark.

    Debating who or what is a "real archivist" versus an "information peddler" (and implying that Mark is the latter and therefore not the former) seems to me a useless and immature conversation. I'm sure you will agree that our profession is not served by petty infighting or name-calling.

  • 💬 Thomas L at November 3, 2009, 23:32 UTC:

    Cool, Hillel, I agree. I didn't make distinctions between archivists. @Jane Stevenson implied the distinction, and I ran with it. I do want to debate the issue of archival description, however, and therefore appreciate your comment. There is no thinly veiled attack in my comments, rather, a plea for information.

  • 💬 Alex Hauschild at March 9, 2010, 03:08 UTC:

    While finishing up a two-year IMLS grant I accidentally became acting curator at the Architecture and Design Collection at UCSB. prior to that, my work for the IMLS was as digital project archivist for two separate collections. I was struck by problems similar to the ones you mention here, created by the finding aids.

    The finding aids seem to create a barrier between the archivist and free access. You used the phrase mediate access. It would seem to me that the point of a finding aid should be to minimize the need for the expert operator. Unfortunately the opposite seems to occur.

    In the case of the architecture and design collection, the finding aids don't take into account the nature of the archives as museum holdings. Rather, they attempt to describe the collections according to architectural traditions which works well, mostly. In a museum setting, where categories, narratives, historical and visual impact are often more important to the curators, these finding aids can actually obscure those qualities. To complicate matters, additional architectural cataloguing will further distance. The material from "regular" users.

    A couple years ago we were suggesting this problem could be cured by "natural language" description. Whatever happened to that term?

    Alexander J. Hauschild
    Digital Project Archivist, Museum Scientist Sr.