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On Oct. 16th, I attended a workshop presented by the Society of American Archivists at App St. in Boone, NC. Our instructor was Lynn Holdzkom, Head of Technical Services in the Special Collections Department at UNC- Chapel Hill. The topic at hand was Describing Archives: A Content Standard, or DACS. This is a set of rules, or rather strong recommendations, as how to arrange and describe archival collections. Lynn was one of the authors of DACS, so she really knew her information as you would expect. She made sure to emphasize that this was NOT a cataloging workshop or a finding aid workshop; it was to help us understand the principles of description that will provide access points for researchers using our materials.

Because every archives has a collection that is unique, it is virtually impossible to have a single way of arranging and describing all collections. Therefore, we have to consider four main questions when we arrange the materials: Who uses the archives? What do the users want? Why do users want it? and How do users go about getting it? If we think about this before we arrange the materials, it will affect the way we decide to proceed. We should observe the provenance, or the source and history of the materials, as much as possible but at the same time arrange them in a way that is user-friendly.

This means that the “order of the records that was established by the creator should be maintained by physical and/or intellectual means whenever possible to preserve existing relationships between the documents and the evidential value inherent in their order”. (DACS, xii). So while libraries group books according to LC Subject heading, that isn’t the approach for archives. We leave the materials as close to the original order they come in as possible, to show how the person who created them arranged them. That’s why it can become very confusing to arrange collections; it might make more logical sense to group all letters about a certain topic together, but the creator kept then in date order. So, we work with them in date order to the extent that a researcher can easily locate things.

We discussed the elements of a collection finding aid, including the creator, title, date, collection number, physical description, language, summary, repository, source of collection , custodial history and information about access. All of these pieces as well as others are parts of the finding aids that are created to tell users about the collection. The trick is to keep them as succinct as possible but to give enough information that the user can know if it is useful to him or her. We did practice exercises with fictitious collections to see how we would approach them. It was interesting to hear different people’s ideas about what to include, and it was obvious that there is no one way to do it; descriptions will vary from archive to archive, just the way that the collections do. But if we can follow the general outlines given by DACS, our finding aids and collection descriptions will be similar enough that users will feel comfortable using them no matter which collection they need.

I was glad to have the opportunity to learn more about the content standard, and can now work on incorporating it in the collections we have here. And I also know who to email if I have questions about it; who better than one of the creators herself?!