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archival description

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n. ~ 1. The process of analyzing, organizing, and recording details about the formal elements of a record or collection of records, such as creator, title, dates, extent, and contents, to facilitate the work's identification, management, and understanding. - 2. The product of such a process.


Archival description1 is similar to the process of bibliographic description, and some standards for archival description are derived from bibliographic standards. A key difference is that, in the absence of a title page to serve as the chief source of information, archival description requires a significant amount of the content of the description to be supplied from the context of the materials being described, whereas the content of bibliographic description is transcribed directly from the material being described. Also, archival descriptions are intended to be updated if materials are added to the collection.

(Pitti 1999) The distinction between what and for whom libraries and archives remember accounts form the major differences in archival and bibliographic description. A bibliographic description, such as that found in a MARC record, represents an individual published item, and thus is item-level. There is a one-to-one correspondence between the description and the item. The description is based on, and is derived from, the physical item. Archival description represents a fonds, a complex body of materials, frequently in more than one form or medium, sharing a common provenance. The description involves a complex hierarchical and progressive analysis. It begins by describing the whole, then proceeds to identify and describe sub-components of the whole, and sub-components of sub-components, and so on. Frequently, but by no means always, the description terminates with a description of individual items. The description emphasizes the intellectual structure and content of the material, rather than their physical characteristics.