Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook
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Standards for archival description have consumed a great deal of attention during the last two decades. It is beyond the scope of this handbook to provide a thorough history of archival description. The report of the Working Group on Standards for Archival Description (WGSAD) provides both a chronology of key developments in and an overview of descriptive practice in the U.S. since the 1940s.1

This chapter is meant to provide some context for understanding the current state of development in the U.S. Parallel international efforts are discussed in Chapter 13. Here are examined the evolution in the definition of "description," followed by highlights in the progress made by several projects undertaken in this country specifically to develop description standards.

Definition of archival description in the United States

The standard definition of archival description has changed significantly in the last twenty years. A Basic Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers, issued by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) in 1974, contains a very traditional and relatively limited definition of description:

The process of establishing intellectual control over holdings through the preparation of finding aids.

In a separate entry, the 1974 Glossary defines finding aids:

The descriptive media, published and unpublished, created by an originating office, an archival agency, or manuscript repository, to establish physical or administrative and intellectual control over records and other holdings. Basic finding aids include guides (general or repository and subject or topical), inventories or registers, location registers, card catalogs, special lists, shelf and box lists, indexes, calendars, and, for machine-readable records, software documentation.

In 1977, in what was the first basic manual on archival arrangement and description published in the U.S., David Gracy took a somewhat broader view. He outlined the components of an effective descriptive program, the fundamental purpose of which was to establish "physical, administrative, and/or intellectual control over archives and manuscripts." He defined control as having at hand, when needed, "(1) essential information about the records, (2) knowledge of the information in the records, and (3) the holdings themselves."2

Gracy went on to enumerate the components of the descriptive program. They included not only finding aids such as inventories, registers, guides, and card catalogs, but also internal control documents such as accession forms and shelf lists employed prior to preparation of formal finding aids. Gracy also suggested what he called "third-stage" methods (following completion of finding aids) for disseminating information to the research community such as notices in scholarly journals, reports to the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections (NUCMC), and compilation of reference lists to highlight certain subject strengths.

His emphasis throughout was on how a sound descriptive program coordinates these various components. He concluded his discussion of description with this observation:

The shrewd archivist performs no greater service for himself than framing an integrated system [emphasis added] in which the accomplishment of one task leads to and lays a foundation for another. The scope and content note in the inventory, for example, should be full enough that a notice of opening for scholarly journals can be distilled from it and that it can serve in reporting the collection to NUCMC and for producing a guide.3

In 1980 the SAA Task Force on Institutional Evaluation published a report that contained ten "Principles for Institutional Evaluation," criteria for evaluating archival repositories and their programs. While they did not define description per se, the principles echo the call for developing a system of descriptive tools along with asserting more traditional priorities such as describing groups and series before describing individual items.

The archives should design a system of finding aids that provides essential information about the holdings for users and enables the archivist to retrieve materials. Finding aids should employ first the techniques of group and series description before undertaking item description; a brief description of all records is preferred to a detailed description of some of them. The level of description of records depends on their research value, the anticipated level of demand, and their physical condition. Finding aids may include, as appropriate, guides, inventories or registers, card catalogs, special lists, shelf and box lists, indexes, calendars, and for machine-readable records, software documentation.4

Despite significant development and change in descriptive practices over the next decade, no formal attempt to define description was made until the late 1980s when three definitions appeared in rapid succession. These most recent formal definitions of archival description are quite similar to one another because they were products of cross-pollinated, concurrent projects.

One of the first things the Working Group on Standards for Archival Description (WGSAD) did when it met in December 1988 was to agree on the following definition as a foundation for its work.

Archival description is the process of capturing, collating, analyzing, and organizing any information that serves to identify, manage, locate, and interpret the holdings of archival institutions and explain the contexts and records systems from which those holdings were selected.

In this definition, WGSAD chose to shift the emphasis away from the products of description (i.e., finding aids) to the processes underlying them. Description is no longer defined as the production of finding aids, as it had been in the 1974 Glossary, but is more broadly conceived. It reflects the "systems" approach to the control and retrieval of information that has some of its philosophical roots in Gracy's descriptive program and, more directly, in the analytical work of the National Information Systems Task Force (NISTF) that is described in more detail below.5

The WGSAD definition holds that anytime archivists record any element of information about their holdings or their institutions, it is a descriptive act. Thus, description not only encompasses the creation of traditional descriptive products like catalog records and inventories but also extends to others created to meet a range of archival management needs, such as appraisal reports, transfers of ownership, box and folder labels, and statistical compilations. An efficient descriptive system, especially when driven by a sound use of automated technologies, can capture information once and eliminate the need to recreate it for another purpose.

In 1990 SAA published Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts, a manual prepared by Fredric Miller, part of a new series on basic archival functions, that is the direct successor to Gracy's 1977 work. Miller was a member of WGSAD and his definition of description refines the one adopted by WGSAD.

Archival description is the process of capturing, collating, analyzing, controlling, exchanging, and providing access to information about (1) the origin, context, and provenance of different sets of records, (2) their filing structure, (3) their form and content, (4) their relationships with other records, and (5) the ways in which they can be found and used.6

Most recent of all is the definition appearing in A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers published by SAA in 1992.7 Coauthor Lynn Bellardo was also a WGSAD member.

(1) The process of analyzing, organizing, and recording information that serves to identify, manage, locate, and explain the holdings of archives and manuscript repositories and the contexts and records systems from which those holdings were selected; (2) The written representations or products of the above processes; (3) In records management, a written account of the physical characteristics, informational content, and functional purpose of a record series or system.

Standards development efforts in the U.S.

Since the early 1970s, archivists in the United States have made a conscious effort to try to codify their practices and create explicit rules from implicit methodologies. This drive toward standards has by no means been limited to description, but has touched on technical methods associated with preservation, issues of personal concern like ethics, and management criteria. Several writers have interpreted this focus on standards, the development of a body of common knowledge and practice, as one of the signs of a maturing profession.8

SAA Committee on Finding Aids

One of the first of these efforts in the area of archival description came in the early 1970s. SAA's Committee on Finding Aids conducted an intensive analysis of the structure and content of a representative sample of finding aids then in use in U.S. repositories. Having surveyed more than 400 archives and manuscript repositories, the committee found "wide variations in manuscript registers and records inventories, but ... these variations occurred in two main areas: the intended use of the several parts or sections, and the terminology used in the finding aids."9

The committee's report was published as Inventories and Registers: A Handbook of Techniques and Examples in 1975. It contained explanations and examples of the basic components of archival finding aids: preface, introduction, biographical sketch, agency history, scope and content note, series description, container listing, item listing, and index.

At the time the committee's report was published, it was thought that the document might be considered for adoption as an SAA standard, but no further formal action was taken. It was widely used over the next several years, providing a basic structure and a series of examples that many repositories nationwide followed in constructing their own inventories and registers. It also became a teaching tool for training new practitioners in the basics of description.10

Despite the lack of formal endorsement, it is arguable that Inventories and Registers met one of the most important criteria to be considered a standard in that it was developed through a broadly participatory consensus process. Its subsequent widespread use certainly qualified it as a de facto standard for archival description in the U.S. Not having been reviewed or modified, however, in fifteen years, it was declared out of print by the SAA Editorial Board in the early 1990s.

National Information Systems Task Force (NISTF)

No single group has had a greater impact on descriptive practice in the U.S. than the National Information Systems Task Force (NISTF).11 NISTF was created in 1977 to sort out a whole range of issues surrounding the emergence of several national databases that could carry information about archival holdings. By 1982 its members had developed the first two formally recognized description standards in the U.S.: the NISTF Data Elements Dictionary and what is now known as the USMARC Format for Archival and Manuscripts Control (USMARC AMC).12 These two standards have provided the foundation upon which much subsequent development has taken place.

The Data Element Dictionary was developed through an analytical process that was similar, at least on the surface, to that which resulted in the 1975 Inventories and Registers. First, Elaine Engst collected examples of finding aids and other descriptive sources from manuscript collections and archival repositories nationwide and extracted from them a list of specific types of information (data elements) that each contained. She was able to demonstrate that the content and functions of about 20 of those elements were essentially identical from repository to repository, even when the name attached to the element or the types of records being described were quite different. This conclusion allowed NISTF to counter the prevailing notion that description standards would be impossible to achieve because practices used in dealing with archives and manuscripts were so different.

A NISTF working group subsequently extended the process and in much greater depth. It went through all the fields in existing MARC records to determine which were germane to archival information needs, then went through working documents from the Library of Congress and the National Archives to see if these fields met their requirements.

NISTF's efforts diverged from those of the earlier Finding Aids Committee, however, in that NISTF did not limit itself to defining the data elements contained in finding aids alone. Instead it sought to identify all elements of information collected or used by archivists in any aspect of their work. In this sense it was truly grounded in the process of systems analysis and took the earlier concepts of a system of finding aids to its logical extension in an archival information system covering the operations of the entire repository. This larger notion of an all-encompassing system underpins the WGSAD definition of description.

The USMARC AMC format is still very much with us and is discussed in further detail along with the other USMARC formats in Chapter 3. The NISTF Data Elements Dictionary was an essential step in the development of USMARC AMC and is still cited when analyzing archival information needs in a broader context. Unfortunately, it has gone nearly ten years without formal maintenance and is not available in printed form, except by photocopy.13

Components and requirements of an archival information system

One of WGSAD's seventeen recommendations called for a thorough analysis of the information management needs for the effective administrative, physical, and intellectual control of archival materials that would result in the development of an "information architecture."14 In 1990, an NHPRC-funded Archival Information Systems Architecture Working Group began this work. Its goal is to develop an information architecture which would provide a comprehensive model of "each archival activity that uses data, and the types of data used or generated by each activity."15 The information architecture and accompanying interpretive materials are intended to help archivists (1) establish systems for new archival programs; (2) evaluate existing systems, manual or computer-assisted; and (3) describe requirements to vendors or system designers.

Further Reading

Bearman, David. Archival Methods. Archives and Museum Informatics Technical Report vol. 3, no. 1. Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics, 1989.

Bearman, David. Archives and Museum Data Models and Dictionaries. Archives and Museum Informatics Technical Report no. 10. Pittsburgh: Archives and Museum Informatics, 1990.

Bearman, David. Towards National Information Systems for Archives and Manuscript Repositories: The National Information Systems Task Force (NISTF) Papers, 1981-1984. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1987.

Brown, Thomas E. "The Society of American Archivists Confronts the Computer." American Archivist 47 (Fall 1984): 366-382.

Cox, Richard J. "The American Archival Profession and Information Technology Standards." Journal of the American Society for Information Science 43 (September 1992): 571-575.

Hensen, Steven L. "RAD, MAD, and APPM: The Search for Anglo-American Standards for Archival Description." Archives and Museum Informatics 5 (Summer 1991): 2-5.

Lucas, Lydia. "Efficient Finding Aids: Developing a System for Control of Archives and Manuscripts." American Archivist 44 (Winter 1981): 21-16. Later published in A Modern Archives Reader: Basic Readings on Archival Theory and Practice, edited by Maygene Daniels and Timothy Walch, 203-210. Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1984.

Lytle, Richard H. "An Analysis of the Work of the National Information Systems Task Force." American Archivist 47 (Fall 1984): 357-365.

Working Group on Standards for Archival Description. "Archival Description Standards: Establishing a Process for Their Development and Implementation." American Archivist 52 (Fall 1989): 430-502.

Contains the report and recommendations of the Working Group along with several supplementary sections, including a glossary, a checklist of standards applicable to archival description, and a select bibliography.

Data Elements Used in Archives, Manuscripts, and Records Repository Information Systems: A Dictionary of Standard Terminology (NISTF Data Elements Dictionary)

Paper (33 p.).
Out of print.

Development, approval, and maintenance:

Developed by a working group appointed by SAA's National Information Systems Task Force. The working group had representatives from the Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration, institutions which cooperated in NHPRC's Data Base Project, and the Research Libraries Group, Inc. Originally reviewed and approved by NISTF in 1982, a revised version was prepared in 1984 and approved by SAA's Committee on Archival Information Exchange which was assigned maintenance responsibilities for the dictionary.

Scope and structure:

The Data Elements Dictionary "is intended to provide archivists, records managers, and manuscripts curators with a common nomenclature with which to define information systems used in the control of records and the management of records programs. The common nomenclature serves to identify identical information collected, used, and reported by different subsystems within an in-house information system (and hence to identify areas for more efficient information handling within an institution). In addition it could identify data held in common by different repositories which is, therefore, theoretically available for exchange."

The document illustrates how data elements "appear in active control systems" by listing the elements that might be found in "control tools" created for ten specific functions that occur during the life cycle of records, including appraisal, accessioning, processing, and preservation. The functional listings are followed by an alphabetical list of all data elements. Each entry includes a definition of the element as well as cross references to the relevant sections of the USMARC AMC format and the first edition of APPM.


Published as a section in Nancy Sahli, MARC for Archives and Manuscripts: The AMC Format (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1985) which is now out of print.

Related standards:

The Dictionary was used as the basis for development of the USMARC Format for Archives and Manuscript Control.


Lytle, Richard H. "An Analysis of the Work of the National Information Systems Task Force." American Archivist 47 (Fall 1984): 357-365.


Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts. 1990. Fredric M. Miller; Society of American Archivists. Paper (131 p.). ISBN 0-931828-75-9. Available from SAA. $19.00 members, $25.00 nonmembers.

This is one of seven volumes in SAA's Archival Fundamentals Series "conceived and written to be a foundation for modern archival theory and practice." It conveys a broad picture of current practice and includes a chapter on standards.

Archives Assessment and Planning Workbook. 1989. Paul McCarthy, ed.; Society of American Archivists. Looseleaf (84 p.). Available from SAA. $19.00 members, $24.00 nonmembers.

The workbook contains a checklist for evaluating archival programs including 12 specific questions relating to the quality of descriptive tools provided and the use of appropriate standards and guidelines.


1 Working Group on Standards for Archival Description, "Archival Description Standards: Establishing a Process for their Development and Implementation, Report of the Working Group on Standards for Archival Description," American Archivist 52 (Fall 1989): 430-502.

2 David B. Gracy II, Archives and Manuscripts: Arrangement and Description (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1977), 19.

3 Gracy, Archives and Manuscripts, 38.

4 Task Force on Institutional Evaluation, Society of American Archivists, Evaluation of Archival Institutions: Services, Principles, and Guide to Self-Study (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, [1980]). In 1989 the Task Force sponsored the preparation of an Archives Assessment and Planning Workbook, edited by Paul McCarthy. The workbook contains a series of checklists (in the form of questions) for evaluating archival programs, derived from the basic principles contained in the 1980 publication, including a section on arrangement and description. The workbook states that "finding aids should conform in spirit to recommendations of the SAA Committee on Finding Aids," presumably in its publication, Inventories and Registers, which is discussed later in this chapter.

5 Five of the sixteen WGSAD members were also members of NISTF (Bearman, Dowler, Hensen, Hickerson, and Sahli).

6 Fredric M. Miller, Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1990), 7.

7 Lewis Bellardo and Lynn Lady Bellardo, A Glossary for Archivists, Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1992).

8 Margaret S. Child, "Reflections on Cooperation Among Professions," American Archivist 46 (Summer 1983): 286-292; Richard J. Cox, "Professionalism and Archivists in the United States," American Archivist 49 (Summer 1986): 229-247; William J. Maher, "Contexts for Understanding Professional Certification: Opening Pandora's Box," American Archivist 51 (Fall 1988): 408-427.

9 Committee on Finding Aids, Inventories and Registers: A Handbook of Techniques and Examples (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1976).

10 Thomas E. Brown, "The Society of American Archivists Confronts the Computer," American Archivist 47 (Fall 1984): 370-371.

11 The work of NISTF is documented in several publications. See especially David Bearman, Towards National Information Systems for Archives and Manuscript Repositories: The National Information Systems Task Force (NISTF) Papers, 1981-1984 (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1987); Richard H. Lytle, "An Analysis of the Work of the National Information Systems Task Force," American Archivist 47 (Fall 1984): 357-365.

12 SAA Council voted to approve both of them at the same meeting; see "Minutes: Council Meeting, 17 October 1982," in American Archivist 46 (Spring 1983): 226.

13 The only time the Data Elements Dictionary was formally published was as a section in Nancy Sahli, MARC for Archives and Manuscripts: The AMC Format (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1985) which is now out of print.

14 Recommendation 13 in "Recommendations of the Working Group on Standards for Archival Description," American Archivist 52 (Fall 1989): 473.

15 Quoted from unpublished remarks by Marion Matters, project coordinator for the Archival Information Systems Architecture Working Group, at the SAA annual meeting, 1991.

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Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook
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