This post is part of a series exploring archival description of visual materials. Please click below to read further:
Current Practices of Image Description Part 1
Libraries organize published, non-unique items (such as books and serials) using standards such as MARC and AACR2 with LCSH descriptors. Archives, museums, and visual resource collections create lengthy, detailed descriptions of unique materials or their representations (such as slides and digital images), which can be expressed as both collection- and item-level records.
Description expands upon information gleamed during appraisal and arrangement, which produces preliminary descriptive forms, such as container lists; summarizes the context and content of archival materials at multiple levels; and adds usage restrictions and access points for creators and subjects (Zinkham, 2006).
Description often includes provenance, style or genre, history and use of the item, preservation details, various views of the item, and controlled vocabularies. Description presents information not otherwise provided on the images; often there are no identifying texts. Without description, archivists must rely on staff memory or browse through images, which is time consuming and weakens images from handling. Undescribed images are vulnerable to theft and misfiling (Zinkham, 2006).
Schellenberg (1965) devotes the final chapter of Management of Archives to the arrangement and description of visual materials. He notes, “The methods of arranging and describing pictorial records have not been fully defined, much less standardized” (p. 322). Since the publication of his seminal book, formal standards, such as Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), Graphic Materials, and Rules for Archival Description (RAD), have been developed for archival description of visual materials. For example, the ISAD (G): General International Standard of Archival Description defines multilevel principles, such as moving from the broad to specific, linking hierarchical levels, and basic descriptive elements. These elements include creator names, titles, dates, administrative history, scope and content, and locations of originals and copies (International Council on Archives, 2000). While descriptive standards offer consistency, repositories employ descriptive systems suited to their holdings, not universal access, and archival description continues to be idiosyncratic (Pugh, 2005).
In their literature review, Greene and Meissner (2005) found that “[f]rom the mid-1960s to the present, archival authors have dismissed arrangement at the item level as having little utility and being thoroughly impractical for modern collections” (p. 213). Despite the literature, their repository and grant proposal surveys found that a large proportion of archivists have adhered to item-level description, even though it is contrary to the traditional archival practice of collection-level description. The same discrepancy between literature and practice appears to be true for visual collections.