Archival description is a cornerstone of the practice of archivy, and in most cases is the initial interface between an archival institution’s holdings and the audience for those holdings. While many authors within the archival profession have written both practical and theoretical articles on archival description, there is relatively little within the professional literature that provides a conceptual framework or formalization of archival description. When these frameworks or formalizations do exist, they are seldom interconnected to the critical trend in archivistics which has developed within the last twenty-five years. These two intellectual strands investigating the larger context of archives and archival description have the potential to inform each other and become highly intertwined. This presentation will discuss the meaning, structure, and use of archival description from a variety of perspectives. We will define archival description both abstractly and in terms of its constituent components and the relationships between those components. We will also determine what archival description intends to express and convey to the variety of its audiences, as well as its intended purpose from the perspective of the archivist. With these definitions in place, we will then investigate the strengths and limitations provided by these definitions. In particular, we will analyze the constraints that current archival metadata standards place on the transformative power of archival description. Finally, we will explore possibilities for reconceptualizing the structure and model for representations of archival entities that can leverage pluralistic recontextualization as well as emerging methods for sharing and relating information, such as the Linked Data paradigm.
Mark Matienzo is a Digital Archivist at Yale University Library’s Manuscripts and Archives department and Technical Architect for the ArchivesSpace project. Matienzo served as lead digital archivist for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation-funded AIMS project (“Born-Digital Collections: An Inter-Institutional Model for Stewardship”), a partnership between Yale University, University of Virginia, Stanford University, and University of Hull. He is also an adjunct faculty member at the iSchool at Drexel University, where he teaches digital preservation. He received a Master of Science in Information from the University of Michigan and a BA in Philosophy from the College of Wooster. More information about his projects and research can be found online at matienzo.org.