An Introduction to Archive Descriptions
Archives are unique collections, and so descriptions will vary quite widely. However, you will find the same basic information for most descriptions. The collections are catalogued by the holding institution, and practices may vary between institutions.
This page focuses on descriptions on the Archives Hub, but they are typical of descriptions you will find elsewhere.
Sections of an Archive Description
Descriptions include core sections, that are common to all entries, and additional sections, that may be included in some descriptions but not in others.
Descriptions may be just a single level, which summarises the whole collection, or a whole hierarchy that typically comprises an overall description together with 'lower levels' that provide nested levels such as series, sub-series, and items.
If a colletion has a hierarchy it is known as a 'multi-level description' and it will have a tree structure that you can navigate. which lists all of the described sections within a collection.
A 'lower level' entry, such as a series or item description, that forms just one part of a complete collection description, may be brief, sometimes only with a reference, title and date. The title may not make much sense unless it is viewed in the context of the whole description, e.g. 'Commonplace book' is the title of an item that forms part of the 'Sir Hugh Casson Papers'.
The key sections are:
Reference Number: The reference used to describe the collection, often a combination of letters and numbers, such as 'MGF'.
Title: The title of the collection, intended to give an overall sense of what the collection is and who created it, e.g. 'British Olympic Association Archive Collection', or 'Papers of Millicent Garrett Fawcett'.
Dates of Creation: The covering dates of the material, from the oldest to the most recent item within the collection. Typically something like '1900-1952', or maybe more specific, such as 'January 1914 - March 1915'. Sometimes dates will be more approximate, such as 'Early 19th century'.
Language: The language of the collection, often English, but may be in any language, or a combination of languages. Some collections are in several languages, sometimes quite obscure ones!
Physical Description: The size of the collection, often given as the number of boxes or a measurement in linear or cubic metres. Other information may be included here such as types of materials, physical condition and dimensions.
Scope and Content: A description of the overall contents of the collection, which may be brief or very detailed. It may list all the series within the collection.
Arrangement: The way the archive is organised, which may include a list of the series within the collection.
Adminstrative/Biographical History: Information about the creator of the archive. For example, a biography of Millicent Garrett Fawcett or a description of The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.
Conditions Governing Access: May include important information about access, such as whether the collection is fully open for consultation and whether you need to make an appointment.
Subjects / Personal Names / Corporate Names / Geographic Names: These are 'index terms' added by the creator of the description. They are significant people, organisations, subjects and places associated with the archive. On the Archives Hub they are clickable links, to take you to more archives that relate to the same topic area.
Descriptions on the Archives Hub can range from being very summary through to being highly detailed.
The core information about an archive collection refers to the reference, title, date, creator, language and extent. Digital content is also included here if it exists.
Includes the scope and content, which describes the material, and the administrative or biographical history, which describes the creator.
Also on the Archives Hub the access conditions are provided, which may simply indicate that the material is open for consultation or may provide information about closure or limitations on access.
Other descriptive information may be provided such as information about separated material, reproduction and the proveance and history of the material
Index terms are often provided to describe the subjects, people, organisations, places, publications and types of material. These can give a sense of what the collection is substantially about and they provide links to initiative further searches.
The first part of a collection description, showing the 'core information' and the 'scope and content' section.
An 'item level' description, showing the breadcrumb trail that leads back to the main collection description.
This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced