Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook
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This handbook is the final product of one of the most fully collaborative experiences in which I have ever had the privilege to participate, appropriate since standards themselves are at their very essence the products of collaboration.

The Working Group on Standards for Archival Description (WGSAD) was remarkable in both its timing and its participants. By the mid-1980s, standards were clearly on the minds of most archivists. I remember being struck by the large number of standards-related discussions that I heard at nearly every session and committee meeting I attended at the 1987 Society of American Archivists annual meeting. The concern reached across archival practice, from the technical standards required in descriptive systems and preservation to the guidelines evolving in the areas of archival education and institutional evaluation. Everyone seemed to acknowledge that we needed to "do something" about standards, but no one was sure what needed to be done or even, in fact, what we really meant by "standards."

The SAA Description Section had an extensive discussion about standards at that meeting. Automated systems were spreading rapidly, the USMARC format and cataloging rules like APPM were being adopted nationwide, and archivists were being asked to participate in standards development in other fields. It seemed important to educate ourselves about the issues and processes involved so that we could better coordinate our internal efforts and work more effectively in external ones.

Several of the archivists who conceived the WGSAD project were veterans of SAA's first foray into description standards, the National Information Systems Task Force (NISTF). Like that project, WGSAD recognized the importance of rigorous analysis linked with strong efforts to publicize its work and educate working archivists about the issues it was considering. WGSAD published regular updates during the project and a final report and background papers in two issues of the American Archivist (Fall 1989 and Winter 1990).

The archivists who formed the Working Group on Standards for Archival Description were among the most knowledgeable and active individuals in the field. Most remarkable was the cohesion in the group and the willingness of every participant to focus on areas of agreement rather than differences in local practice.

As the WGSAD project coordinator, I was charged with gathering background information on how various standards developers conducted their business, tracking down copies of (sometimes obscure) standards and citations to writings about them, and organizing the resulting mountain of documentation so that the Working Group could deal with it effectively.

I found the learning curve on standards to be steep. It took most of the first year of the project simply to gain a basic understanding of the number of existing standards and the organizations that were responsible for their development and maintenance. As WGSAD kept working, we all acquired more detailed knowledge about specific standards, how they could be applied to archival practice, and what problems remained.

My strongest motivation in compiling this handbook has been to flatten the learning curve for others, even if only a little. Although the focus is on description, WGSAD's definition of "description" is a broad one, extending well beyond the production of traditional finding aids. There are statistical standards here that archival managers can use in compiling annual reports that "describe" the year's activities to their resource allocators. There are also publication standards that editors can use in books and newsletters that "describe" the agency's mission and activities to the general public.

We all still have a great deal to learn about how to develop and use standards most effectively in archival practice. I hope that this handbook will contribute to furthering the considerable progress we have already made.


My first set of thanks goes of course to the fifteen archivists who constituted the Working Group on Standards for Archival Description. Each member of WGSAD contributed directly to this handbook in some measure: Larry Dowler, David Bearman, Lynn Bellardo, Jean Dryden, Steve Hensen, Tom Hickerson, Marion Matters, Fred Miller, Harriet Ostroff, Kathleen Roe, Nancy Sahli, Lee Stout, Richard Szary, Sharon Thibodeau, and Lisa Weber.

These colleagues were all very active in developing the recommendations and preparing the report for WGSAD. Several prepared background papers (also published in the American Archivist) that I was able to draw from when I prepared the relevant sections of the handbook. All WGSAD members saw a draft of this handbook as well, even though their official duties were over by the time it was ready, and many provided helpful comments and guidance on its organization and contents.

Larry Dowler, as Project Director, was the perfect leader of such a talented group. He was able to draw everyone into substantive discussions, keep the process moving toward a productive end, and conceptualize a larger vision out of the minute details from which standards are built. He provided a great deal of support for my work both throughout the project and the through the preparation of this handbook.

Marion Matters deserves special recognition because she wrote substantial portions of Chapters 3 and 4, drawing on her considerable experience in both archival and library cataloging. She also copy edited the entire manuscript, no small feat in itself with the number of technical citations it contains, and was a continuing source of support and advice throughout the preparation of the text.

Jackie Dooley and Barbara Cain also deserve great thanks, serving as they did as the formal outside reviewers for the entire manuscript prior to publication. They did extraordinary work, correcting many errors and suggesting ways in which the text could be made more clear. Lisa Weber also committed an untold number of evenings and weekends to the task of reviewing the text, as always going far beyond her formal responsibilities to make sure that NHPRC grant projects produce the best possible results.

I am deeply indebted to Marion, Jackie, Barbara, and Lisa for their extraordinary efforts on this project and deep commitment to their profession. Of course, I accept full responsibility for any errors of commission or omission that remain.

A number of other archivists, librarians, and standards developers supplied very helpful information about their own areas of specialty and deserve particular thanks. They include Jim Berberich, Norman Boas, Lida Churchville, Paul Conway, Marilyn Courtot, Charles Dollar, Frank Evans, Linda Evans, Max Evans, Michael Fox, Harriet Harrison, Margaret Hedstrom, Peter Hirtle, John McDonald, Barbara Orbach, Betsy Parker, John Perkins, Toni Petersen, Peri Schuyler, Maxine Sitts, Hugo Stibbe, Jill Tatem, Bill Wallach, Christine Ward, Ted Weir, Maureen Will, Christina Zanotti, and Helena Zinkham.

I especially appreciate the time Pat Harris took to review all of the entries for standards from the National Information Standards Organization (NISO). The interests of archivists and NISO are converging and archivists will benefit from significantly from this alliance over the next few years.

I appreciate SAA's willingness to serve as publisher for the handbook and am especially grateful to Teresa Brinati, SAA's managing editor, for her patience and skills in bringing this to press.

And finally, thanks to my family for living through this with me. My husband, Tim, not only stayed awake but listened patiently as I tested out explanations of open systems, information interchange, functional profiles, and other equally engaging concepts. My sons, Tom and Brian, put up with a number of out-of-town trips for WGSAD meetings and months of late night typing stints. They long ago gave up trying to explain to their friends what I do. As we all know, hardly anyone understands what an archivist is or does. An archivist who works for other archivists is simply beyond comprehension. At least now they'll have a book to point to and say, "She wrote this."

Victoria Irons Walch
Iowa City, Iowa

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