Chaos –> Order recently featured a great post, “What We Talk About When We Don’t Talk About Accessioning“, by Rachel Searcy. The post argues for the importance of thoroughly documenting accession work and the need for archivists to talk more broadly about accession practices.
I couldn’t agree more. One of the long term projects I’m working on right now involves cleaning up accession files and linking that information to fonds and sous fonds level descriptions. A lot of provenance, historical biographical, and other contextual information can be captured in quality accession records.
The lack of field wide accessioning guidelines was touched on during the Roundtable on the Future of RAD. The Canadian archival field has detailed guidelines on how to physically describe a postage stamp but uniform accession practices do not exist. Each institution has it’s on way of accepting donations and integrating those donations into their collections. But there is a need to establish broad guidelines for what metadata should be captured during accession work. No one wants to guess where collections came from and documenting contextual information and be extremely helpful to future staff and researchers.
Similarly, there is a question of how and if accession records should be linked to broader collection descriptions. Should the metadata captured in accession records be available to researchers? Should it be redacted? Should be made available only to staff or upon request? I’m not sure there’s a one-size fits all answer to these questions. But they are definitely worth thinking about and considering how accession practices impact access.
During the month of December I am participating in #reverb14 as a means of getting my writing habits back on track. I will be altering the prompts as needed to fit within the scope of this blog. Today’s prompt: Small Pleasures: What small pleasures did you discover this year?
Part way through this year I reconnected with some of the archival work I love. My role as a Researcher/Curator meant that I was spending less time focused on archival practice. Reconnecting and spending a few days accessioning and physically processing a collection reminded me how much I enjoy archival work.
I love the sense of accomplishment that comes with seeing order brought to a jumble of papers. I find physical processing oddly relaxing, perhaps it’s the organizational side of me rejoicing at the rules of processing and description. Knowing that the work I do makes material accessible and discoverable online is a huge motivator. It’s rewarding to see archives actively being used and researchers engaging with the material that was previously an unorganized box of papers.
My recent foray into the archival world has provided me with a renewed appreciation for standardization of descriptive techniques. Rules for Archival Description (RAD) is a national (Canadian) set of rules for archival description. The first edition of RAD was established in the 1990s and has since become common place in most quality archives in Canada. Outside of Canada similar rules to RAD exist. In the United States the Anglo-American Cataloging Rules, second edition (AACR2) serves the same purpose as RAD.
RAD and similar codes provide standard outlines of how descriptive data and general metadata is recorded and organized. This allows collected information to maintain uniformity between organization, provides structure to data, and establishes professional standards. Granted, there is room to develop internal policies which work with RAD to meet organizational needs. Even with these adaptations of RAD most archival descriptions are created in a very standardized manner.
I recently accepted a position in an archive, this move from the museum world to the archive has highlighted the overwhelming lack of descriptive standardization in the heritage field. Most heritage organizations have internal policies which dictate how metadata should be organized and outline descriptive practices. However, in Canada there currently is not a professional standard which unifies descriptions (or anything else) between organizations.
Creating a professional standard and an agency to maintain that standard isn’t an easy task. But, considering the success of standardization in the archival field and the library world it is surprising that more attempts haven’t been made to regulate the museum field. Formal guidelines for description have the potential to help museums which currently lack quality metadata procedures and to create assist in ensuring the quality of information being collected by museums.