Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook
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The development of standards makes it possible for any telephone in the world to communicate with any other telephone. The absence of commonly held standards for archival description is an obstacle to archivists who must preserve records and scholars and others who wish to use them. Dramatic developments in information technology have exacerbated this problem and led to the formation of a Working Group on Standards for Archival Description (WGSAD) in 1988. The goal of WGSAD was to promote the importance of standards for archival description and create a process for evaluating and maintaining them within the Society of American Archivists. Publication of Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook supports this objective and provides an important instrument for educating and training archivists about standards for archival description.

The handbook is not a formula for describing archives nor does it assume that practitioners who faithfully adhere to it will achieve a state of archival grace. The handbook is not, in a word, Scripture. It is, however, a book of sources and a guide to the perplexed. It explains the purpose of various standards, tells who supports them, and where to obtain additional information about them. But the handbook does something more. By explicating the context in which standards have developed, readers may be encouraged to reconsider the adequacy and usefulness of a particular standard. Some readers may even question the theoretical underpinning and principles that inform certain standards and lead them to think anew about how to improve archival description. Moreover, the handbook, like standards themselves, is a work in progress, ever changing and evolving in response to changes in technology and society.

Not all standards involve archival description nor are all standards the exclusive purview of archives. As Vicki Walch has noted in her introduction, during the preparation of the handbook the list of potentially useful standards grew from 105 to nearly 250. Of these, 126 are library standards. And these are only the standards that might be of use in archival description; the SAA Standards Board, in a separate project, has identified more than 550 standards that affect archival work in all its various aspects. Still, it is archival description that commands our greatest attention. Descriptive practices and even the kinds of records we currently preserve are being undermined by our loss of continuity with the past.

Growing awareness of ethnic diversity and increasing concern for issues of gender demand new documentary sources. These concerns also will require archivists to reconsider the context from which existing sources have been selected. Social and cultural issues effect the values that shape society; they not only alter social relationships and institutions, but scholarship and inquiry as well. These watershed changes will challenge archivists to preserve the evidence that new inquiry requires, even as the traditional systems and organizations for supporting archives are changing.

Archives are the memory of society and its institutions and inform our cultural heritage. They are the life's blood of an open and free society and public access to archives is an essential condition of its continued existence. It is no accident that after the breakup of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the first thing people seized were the archives, generally the first casualty of a totalitarian regime. But it is not only authoritarian government that threatens archives. Records of value may also be lost when the mode of communication changes. For example, when a previously oral society begins to communicate by writing or the authority of custom gives way to the rule of laws or decrees, some elements of a society's memory are lost. The mode of communication can alter the ways of knowing and may change our perceptions of authority and even our understanding of just what constitutes an evidentiary record. In his novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, Victor Hugo has a priest say that books will destroy the cathedral. Not only would printing and literacy undermine the authority of the church but also "human thought . . . would change its mode of expression. . .." The "principle idea of each generation would no longer write itself with the same material and in the same way . . ." and "the book of stone, so solid and durable, would give place to the book made of paper, yet more solid and durable."

Each information environment--printed text, visual, electronic, audio--requires appropriate descriptive standards to ensure access to it. Written communication evolved over time and the standards that shape and inform it has captured our thoughts and perceptions in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. The same thing may happen with information technology, which is now transforming the way information is stored, packaged, and communicated. It has accelerated the need for standards to ensure the preservation of records and the evidence that explains their relationship to the context from which they were selected. As always, the challenge for archivists is to preserve information of enduring value; to do so will require archivists to take part in the creation, as well as the management, of electronic information systems. What is more, they must take the lead in articulating the rules and procedures--the standards, if you will--that will ensure the preservation of archives. For in the end, whoever sets the standards and designs information systems and data structures will control the future of archives and the memory of society itself.

If you are uncertain about the meaning of a "data structure," this book is for you. The National Historical Publication and Records Commission, which funded the original work of WGSAD, also funded the proposal by the Harvard College Library to prepare a basic handbook on standards for archival description. Vicki Walch, who had served as Project Coordinator for WGSAD, accepted the challenge to prepare the handbook. Jackie Dooley, of the University of California at San Diego, and Barbara Cain, of the North Carolina State Archives, critiqued the manuscript; Marion Matters, an original member of WGSAD, served as copy editor. Marion also wrote significant portions of chapters three and four and several members of WGSAD made suggestions and comments. Lisa Weber, in particular, went over the entire manuscript in detail on her own time.

Although WGSAD recommended the preparation of a basic handbook on standards for archival description, it was Vicki Walch who was its most ardent champion. She recognized that working archivists needed a "practical" manual on standards and how they can be used in archival description. Perhaps because of her work as an independent consultant, she also understood that many archivists lack the institutional resources that librarians and other information workers accept as a matter of course. This handbook is a tribute to Vicki's conviction and singular devotion to the idea of improving archival description by informing new and experienced practitioners alike about the content and purpose of standards. Both the quality of archival description and our ability to preserve records of enduring value will benefit from her commitment.

Lawrence Dowler
Associate Librarian of Harvard College
December 1, 1993

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Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook
© 1994 Society of American Archivists. All Rights Reserved.