Following the same vain as the blog post focused on “gremlin work”, I thought I would write about another part of archival work that is important to consider and that is the importance of description in archival work.
Now, description and describing things is probably something that seems straightforward. However, to better show what I have in mind when thinking of description in an archive, I pulled this quote about archival description from archivists.org:
“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.”
With that definition in mind, it is clear to see that archival is focused on the archival collection and locating materials within it. This is imperative for the work of an archives. An archive is meant to have its holding usable for researchers and other interested people. If an archival collection is not properly described it is not usable for a researcher. Those materials than become worthless. This isn’t even the worst thing that can happen with poor description. What is even worse is if a collection is so poorly described that even the archivists don’t know what is in their collection, rending the materials lost and unusable.
Proper description is something that I have been thinking a lot of lately. A significant portion of my work has forced me to think about the quality of archival descriptions. I have been working with uploading photo slides to the archive’s Flickr, which requires to write titles, descriptions, and tags for specific photos. Making good use of all of those is integral to archival description and I need to make sure that all of those parts work together to give the photo meaning and usability.
This is also true for the collections I have been processing. Sometimes, the materials I am handling are the only record in the archives that that individual existed. I am working with original and unique materials that tell a story. The descriptions I attach with them will stay for the foreseeable future and if there is anything of value to a researcher, I need to make sure I highlight that during my processing.
Another example of proper description goes back to the fear of something being lost. This past week while helping inventory drawers my supervisor and I came across a folder that said: “Iwo Jima miscellaneous.” Within that folder was an original map, with annotation, from the original Iwo Jima assault and attack on Mount Suribachi (where the famous flag raising took place). The original map was rendered nearly useless because of poor description. Description is important in several aspects of archival work, but it is also important in every other form of communication and interactions that we experience as humans. Let’s us think more about how we can describe things in our own lives this week.