Friday, March 20, 2009

The “Margins of Archivy”: Archival Description of Visual Materials Part 3 of 7

This post is part of a series exploring archival description of visual materials. Please click below to read further:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7

Current Practices of Image Description Part 2

Collection-level description can be useful for images of the same subject, but problematic for collections with a variety of subjects, as it neither improves retrieval nor limits handling of the originals. Ritzenthaler and Vogt-O’Connor (2006) agree that group arrangement and description are necessary and acceptable for large photograph collections or when resources are limited. Norris (1985), in his case study of two very large photograph processing projects, states that “something is better than nothing” for description at the group or collection level (p. 133).

However, item-level description is more common with visual materials than with textual materials. This is especially true for digital images, which by their nature, mandate it. Archivists must evaluate their visual collections to determine if item-level description is warranted. Critics like Dooley (1995) call item-level description of visual materials “insupportably expensive and unnecessary” and a “relic of a more leisurely past” (p. 88). Although it is time consuming, item-level description makes images searchable, and, with digital images, viewable without having to retrieve the originals. However, resources are seldom adequate to catalog all collections to the item level, and item-level handling should exist within a framework provided by group-level description. Repositories with limited budgets may digitize one or two representative images, while noting that there are additional unscanned images (Ritzenthaler & Vogt-O’Connor, 2006).

Access to image collections is usually provided through finding aids, which only include subject indexing for large collections, if at all. Studies indicate that, among a variety of libraries and archives, the most frequent approach to image retrieval is by subject (Armitage & Enser, 1997). However, archival practices vary considerably, depending on the repository, the resources available, the size and requirements of the collection, and user needs.

With the advent of computers, some institutions used MARC records to provide subject indexing for large pictorial archives through individual collection-level records (Ritzenthaler & Vogt-O’Connor, 2006). The MARC records point users to a finding aid for a particular collection for more detailed information. Since the finding aids were generally paper-based, and often only available locally at the institution, users would have to view them in person.

Item-level MARC cataloging of images, while in some cases desirable, was often neither warranted nor economically feasible (Ritzenthaler & Vogt-O’Connor, 2006). The hierarchical format and electronic access capabilities of the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) finding aid, however, offers the possibility of a more powerful, flexible alternative. EADs index image collections by providing access points at the collection or item level, depending on the needs of the institution, collection, and users. As the tools for accessing finding aids become more sophisticated, EADs’ content-specific indexing capabilities will make it a powerful resource for standardized, integrated access to primary source visual collections.

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