How to Proceed: Describing

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NAVIGATION
1. Introduction
2. Preparing to Process
3. Arranging
4. Describing
5. Housing and Preserving
6. Finishing the Job

Contents

Describing

The finding aid you create will lead researchers to and into collections that may be of interest to them. Throughout processing, put yourself in the researchers’ shoes and be sure you are creating a guide that will help them find the collections they need and the pertinent material within those collections.

Although describing is the focus of this section, arrangement underpins every description. Arranging establishes the intellectual and physical contours of the collection. While arranging, you anticipate describing your collection in terms of its arrangement scheme. Get the arrangement down, and description will follow.

What is a good finding aid? In 1926, Robert B. House of the North Carolina State Historical Commission (and later, Chancellor of the University and namesake of the Undergraduate Library) said, "Write pithily and attractively, but with absolute truth and unchangeable regard for historical truth and accuracy." That's a good start. Finding aids are written communications, and they should be approached with the same care that goes into any well-written document. Attention to syntax and vocabulary are important; consistency and correctness of punctuation count. While a finding aid can be witty, it should never be chatty. Clarity is essential.

Lean and lucid prose is important, but so is House's "historical truth and accuracy." By becoming familiar with the collection in its historical context, you can supply the researcher with an evaluation of the quality of the information it contains. The researcher, however, does not care if you think the creator of the papers was a jerk or a hero. Keep your prejudices out of the finding aid and be sure that statements you make about the papers are true. Strive to maintain a balanced, analytical tenor.

Along with clear, concise, and carefully written prose, modern day finding aids should be characterized by adherence to current standards for archival description. Since the days of House, there has been a steady march toward standardization of collection descriptions in order to improve intellectual access to archival materials. In 1994, the SHC received a grant from NEH to create MARC online catalog records so that all of its collections would have uniform representation in the University Library’s online catalog. In 1998, the SHC began implementing Encoded Archival Description (EAD), a non-proprietary standard for the encoding of finding aids for use in an online environment. EAD uses a tagging language that encodes collection information in finding aids to facilitate searching within and across repositories. In 2004, the Society of American Archivists published Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), guidelines which standardize the content of finding aids and MARC records. Whereas EAD and MARC address how and where the collection information should be presented in finding aids and catalog records, DACS speaks to what information should be present in these descriptive structures as well as in others. When appropriate, our house protocols for description cite the corresponding DACS rules

(For an example, see the DACS Annotated Finding Aid).

Go forth and describe.

The "Typical" Finding Aid

If you knew, even without benefit of the telltale quotation marks, that the title of this section is a joke, you have understood a basic fact about manuscript and archival materials. In the messy world of manuscripts and archives, nothing is typical. There are, however, finding aid formats that can be established, standards that can be set, and procedures that can be followed. The key, of course, is to apply the formats, standards, and procedures with flexibility.

The following sections lay out the finding aid format used in the Wilson Technical Services Department and get down to the basic procedures for describing a collection's arrangement. Because every collection calls for a tailored arrangement scheme, every collection also calls for tailored description. You can use some of the parts of the finding aid all of the time, and you can use all of the parts of the finding aid some of the time, but you cannot use all of the parts of the finding aid all of the time. Review the following sections with an eye to picking out which parts of the finding aid apply to different kinds of collections.

DACS articulates the idea of levels in archival description. For hierarchical descriptions like finding aids, DACS identifies three levels: multilevel minimum, multilevel optimum, and multilevel added value. See DACS Chapter 1.

We almost always use multilevel added value records for our finding aids. Our finding aids will always include:

  • header and contact information; *brief descriptive summary (typically includes creator, always includes collection title, size and language of materials);
  • abstract;
  • administrative information;
  • subject headings;
  • biographical note;
  • scope and content note;
  • contents list.

Our finding aids may also include:

  • list of series;
  • series descriptions;
  • items separated;
  • related collections.

While styles have changed over the years, be assured that the goal has remained constant: the chief function of the document you are producing is to tell researchers about your collection. With these researchers in mind, you have arranged the collection in a clear and logical fashion; now describe it in a similar way.


Header and Contact Information

The first thing to tell the researcher, of course, is what the collection is and where it is. Most of this information is provided automatically in our EAD template, which includes our standard header and contact information. You fill in the collection name and number and other basic identifying information, such as who processed the collection, when it was processed, and who encoded the finding aid.

Collection Overview

The collection overview contains basic identifying information--title, dates, creator, extent--and an abstract of the collection. The online catalog terms will also be discussed here because they are so closely related intellectually to the abstract.

Here is an example of identifying information:

The collection overview contains basic identifying information--title, dates, creator, extent--and an abstract of the collection.

Here are two examples of identifying information:

Title: Richardson Preyer Papers, circa 1900-2004 (#5111) Creator: Preyer, Richardson Size: 96.5 feet of linear shelf space (approximately 65,600 items)

Title: Order of Gimghoul of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Records, 1832-2009 (bulk 1940-1997) (#40262) Creator: Order of Gimghoul (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Size: 6.0 feet of linear shelf space (approximately 4000 items)


Title

DACS 2.1 Reference Code Element, 2.3 Title Element, and 2.4 Date Element

The title is composed of the name of the collection creator, a collection title, and the collection number.

  • Name of collection creator: The name of the collection creator may be a personal name, family name, organization name, or the name of a collector in the case of an intentionally assembled collection. You should always use the authorized version of the name (check with your supervising archivist). In the case of a personal name, it will be given here in direct order and (usually) without dates. See DACS 2.3.4-2.3.17 Name Segment; Chapter 12 Form of Names for Persons and Families; and Chapter 14 Form of Names for Corporate Bodies.
  • Collection title: The collection title is almost always “papers” for a collection comprised of the papers of an individual or family. Use “records” for the records of organizations, University departments, or other corporate entities. A descriptive title is often used when the collection creator includes the designation COLLECTOR or other such words or if the collection contains materials having a particular, limited focus of only one or two forms (e.g., John Berkley Grimball Diaries (#970) Inventory). See DACS 2.3.18-2.3.22 Nature and Topic of the Archival Element.
  • Collection dates: The collection's inclusive dates, showing the earliest and latest dates of the materials. If you are giving a collection lighter treatment, dates may be somewhat vague (e.g., 1970s or ca. 1865-1910). In some collections, you will find material from a range of years, but a large majority from a smaller range of years. For example, the Cyrus Aydlett Papers (#4907) contain material dating from 1941 through 1994, but most of the collection concerns Aydlett’s experiences during World War II and dates from 1943 through 1945. Thus, the inclusive dates of this collection are 1941-1994 and the bulk dates are 1943-1945: Cyrus Aydlett Papers, 1941-1994 (bulk 1943-1945). A potential difficulty here is when a collection has a few items with dates significantly outside the range of the majority of the items. This is easily handled by appending the outlying date(s) to the range. For example, a collection with materials dated 1793 through 1822, but with a few items from 1988, would be listed: 1723-1822, 1988. The date of an alternate form of an item is the date the alternate form was created, not the date of the original item. See DACS 2.4. Date Element.
  • Collection number: Put the collection number in parentheses after the title (e.g., #00000). For z collections (collections five folders and smaller), include a -z after the collection number (e.g., #00000-z).
Creator

DACS 2.6 Name of Creator(s) Element; Chapter 9 Identifying Creators; Chapter 11 Authority Records, Chapter 12 Form of Names for Persons and Families and Chapter 14 Form of Names for Corporate Bodies

The departmental cataloger will fill in the name of the collection creator in authority form. This may be a personal name, family name, organization name, or the name of a collector in the case of an intentionally assembled collection. If the Library of Congress has established an authority form of the name, that form will be used. In many cases, however, no such authority will exist and the official (authority) version of a name will be determined, according to cataloging standards, by the departmental cataloger. She may need to consult with you about who’s who (e.g., how to distinguish between people with the same name).

Extent

DACS 2.5 Extent Element

We record the extent or size of a collection as both item counts and tallies of linear footage. The physical extent of a collection can be a useful piece of information to a researcher. Knowing that a collection of only minimal interest has 100,000 items to search through may help the researcher assign it low priority in his or her research plans. If the researcher knows that a minimally interesting collection has fifty items, however, he or she may conclude that it is worth a quick look. Budgeting of research time can be greatly facilitated if the researcher can quickly determine how much material he or she needs to examine. Except for z collections (collections of five folders or less), size information is given in both items and linear feet. For z collections, indicate the item count only. Since series descriptions require item counts, you can easily calculate the number of items in your collection by totaling the number of items listed in each series. Item counts, whether within series or as a total collection count, are rarely precise. Use "about" to show that the counts are approximate: About 100,000 items; About 150 items. Remember that "About 13 items" and "About 102,522 items" are absurd statements. If adding your series item counts together results in a figure like these, round up or down ("About 102,500 items" will do). Item count estimation for a collection without series item counts (as in a box list) is fairly straightforward. A document case is said to contain about 400 one- or two-page items and a cubic-foot record center box (Paige box) is said to contain about 800 items if the items are in legal-size folders and 1200 if they are in letter-size folders. If the box contains one or more large items, reduce the count as common sense dictates. The linear-foot count is even more straightforward. Linear feet are calculated according to the boxes used, whether or not these boxes are full. The actual box dimensions are less important than how many boxes of a certain size fill our 3.0-foot-long shelves. One shelf holds two record center boxes, which are, therefore, counted as 1.5 linear feet each. A document case is 0.5 linear feet (six per shelf). Items separated (pictures, S volumes, audiovisual materials, and oversize papers) are included in items counts, but not in linear footage. There is no necessary correlation between the number of items and linear feet, since individual items are of varying sizes and linear feet are totally container dependent. If, however, you wind up with a count like 1,500,000 items (1.0 linear feet), it will probably be questioned.


Repository

DACS 2.2 Name and Location of Repository Element

The repository will be one of the collections in The Wilson Library.

Administrative Information

Note: Prior to Spring of 2009, we listed all of our restrictions, access or usage, in the Usage Restrictions section of the finding aid. In conjunction with the re-design of our finding aid, we changed this practice and are listing restriction statements in their proper fields.

Access Restrictions

DACS 4.1 Conditions Governing Access

When you prepared your processing plan, you consulted the accession record in Archivists’ Toolkit and the control file to determine whether any restrictions apply to all or part of your collection. In arranging your collection, you may have segregated restricted material and labeled it to ensure that restrictions on use will be clear to Research and Instructional Services staff. In the finding aid, you need to let researchers know what restrictions to expect. If you have any questions about how to word your access restriction statements, consult your supervising archivist.

One common access restriction arises when material in a collection is in a format requiring that special steps be taken before it can be used. Because reformatting is extremely labor intensive, preparing these kinds of materials for use in advance of an actual demand can be a waste of valuable staff time. Since reformatting is usually done on demand, the following access restriction statement is appropriate: Use of audio or visual materials may require production of listening or viewing copies.

Other examples:

  • The Addition of 2008 (folders 2-4) is closed to researchers except with permission from the donor until 1 July 2013.
  • Materials in Series 3.2 and 3.3 are CLOSED until 2071.
  • In the original deposit, Series 2.1. Journals and items in Series 1, 2.2, 2.3, and 3 selected by Clyde Edgerton are closed until 15 September 2023. In the 1995 addition, items in Series 5 selected by Clyde Edgerton are closed until April 2026 (boxes 104-106) and Series 6. films (F-4616/1-9), videotapes (VT-4616/1-3), and audiotapes (T-4616/1-7) are closed until 15 September 2023. In the 1998 addition, items in Series 1, 3.2, and 5 selected by Clyde Edgerton are closed until 1 April 2029. In the 2004 addition, Box 6 is closed until 4 August 2034.
  • Materials in Box 40 are CLOSED to researchers for 75 years from the date of their creation for reasons related to the confidentiality of personnel, student, medical, or other legally protected records.

If there are no restrictions on access, include the statement “No restrictions. Open for research.”

Usage Restrictions

DACS 4.2 Physical Access Element, 4.3 Technical Access Element, and 4.4 Conditions Governing Reproduction and Use Element

In this section, we are saying that the researcher is allowed to access the information in the collection but there are restrictions or limits on how the material can be used. Almost without exception, the usage restriction note will contain our standard copyright notice: Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law. If you have reason to believe that your collection may be an exception, consult your supervising archivist. Note that the copyright notice is automatically inserted into every finding aid and is encoded as a usage restriction but displays as “Copyright Notice.”

Usage restrictions can refer to the reproduction or publication of the material or reflect the fragile nature of the materials. If you have any questions about how to word your use restriction statements, consult your supervising archivist. (Note that copyright does not apply to records in University Archives, since they are public records.)

Examples:

  • OP-4012/2 is not to be published before 10 September 2025.
  • Photocopying in Series 1 restricted as follows: no more than three consecutive pages may be copied; no more than ten pages from any one novel may be copied.
  • Subseries 2.4, Kahlil Gibran Materials, and microfilm reels 2 and 5-8 have usage restrictions. Materials in Subseries 2.4 may not be duplicated or published without explicit permission from the estate of Kahlil Gibran. Microfilm reels 2 and 5-8 may not be borrowed through Interlibrary Loan.
  • (Subseries 2.1.2; 2.1.3; 2.1.4; 3.5; 5.1): In order to protect the privacy of volunteers, applicants to the volunteer programs, team directors, and clients of the volunteer program, researchers who wish to use files containing information about these people must agree not to identify them in the products of research without written permission from the subjects.

If there are no restrictions on use, other than the copyright notice, include the statement “No usage restrictions.”

Provenance/Acquisitions Information

DACS 5.2 Immediate Source of Acquisition Element

In this context, provenance means origin or source. Provenance in older finding aids and Acquisitions Information in newer ones, answers the questions: "Where did this stuff come from?" and "When did it get here?"

Collections come to us through many channels. Materials from donors may be given as outright gifts or they may be loaned. Some items are purchased, and others are transferred from other departments on campus.

Information in the control file often documents in detail the path a collection has followed to our door. The provenance/acquisitions information note makes a simple statement of where materials came from, using "Received from" for donor gifts and loans, "Purchased from" for bought items, and "Transferred from" for interdepartmental transfers.

Multiple accessions from different donors, vendors, or transferring departments call for multiple entries, each listing the source, its location, and the month(s) and year(s) of acquisition. If known, the accession number should be included.

Examples:

  • Received from H. Smith Richardson Jr. of Wilmington, N.C., in November 1986 (Acc. 86111), August (Acc. 87066), and September 1987 (Acc. 87077).
  • Received from R. D. W. Connor of Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1946; Mrs. R. D. W. Connor of Chapel Hill in 1950; and Louis Round Wilson of Chapel Hill in May 1953.
  • Purchased from Bertram Rota, Ltd., Booksellers of London, England, in December 1984 (Acc. 84101) and December 1986 (Acc. 86101).
  • Transferred from the Rare Books Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in March 1985 (Acc. 85028).
  • Transferred from the Dental Research Center in December 2001 and February 2002 (Records transfers 20011218.1 and 20020227.1).
Processing Note

Processing notes are used to provide routine information about processing that is not described elsewhere. They typically show who processed the collection and when; they can also be used to credit funding agency support for processing projects.

Example:

This collection was processed with support, in part, from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Division of Preservation and Access, Washington, D.C., 1993-1994.


Items Separated

The items separated section of the finding aid indicates which items have been filed separately from the main part of the collection. An items separated list should include the various formats and number of items/container units that have been separated. Items separated are not necessarily more important than other items in a collection, but we alert researchers to their existence because some formats, especially audiovisual materials, can be of research interest regardless of subject content. If there are items separated in your collection, be sure to include this list in the finding aid for your collection.

Items separated may be listed by item number or container number (box, folder, etc.). The first example lists individually numbered items that have been separated. Notice that we list the individually numbered items and also indicate their physical folder. The second lists folders of unnumbered items that have been separated.

Items Separated

  • Oversize Papers (OP-4240/1-12 in OPF-4240/1 of 1)
  • Extra-oversize Papers (XOP-4240/1 in XOPF-4240/1 of 1)
  • Pictures (P-42420/1-624 in PF-4240/1-12)
  • Oversize Pictures (OP-P-4240/1-5 in OP-PF-4240/1 of 1)
  • Special Format Pictures (SF-P-4240/1-4)
  • Picture Albums (PA-4240/1-12)
  • Audiodisc (D-4240/1)
  • Videotapes (VT-4240/1-8)
  • Oversize Volumes (SV-4240/1-3)

Items Separated

  • Oversize Papers (OPF-4344/1-2)
  • Extra-oversize Papers (XOPF-4344/1)
  • Pictures (PF-4344/1-16)
Related Collections

DACS 6.3 Related Archival Materials Element

The related collections section lists other collections within The Wilson Library, in other campus departments, or in other institutions that contain materials complementing or in some way connected to the collection in hand. This connection must be a close and substantial one for collections to be considered related. If you stick around here long enough, you will realize that most of the people in most of our collections are related and/or knew one another in some way. Family relationship or acquaintance is not sufficient grounds for listing a collection as related; for that, the material in the two collections must have some real relationship.

Names of in-house related collections usually are listed first, followed by their collection number in parentheses.

Examples: Related Collection: H. Smith Richardson Papers (#4283).

Related Collection: Southern Oral History Program Collection, Interview C-1 (#4007).

Related Collection: Office of the Vice Provost for Health Affairs Records (#40110).

Related Collections: Henry Groves Connor Papers (#175); Thaddeus Shaw Page Papers (#3848). See also official records in the North Carolina Division of Archives and History and the National Archives.

Related Collections: The manuscripts of two of the Cleavers's books are in other repositories as follows: Ellen Grace at the Kerlan Collection, University of Minnesota; Where the Lilies Bloom in the Appalachian Collection, Appalachian State University, Boone, N.C.

Related Collection: Smith, Elder Collection in the Rare Book Collection.

Biographical or Historical Note

DACS 2.7 Administrative/Biographical History Element and Chapter 10 Administrative/Biographical History

This section of the finding aid is headed biographical note when its focus is the life of one or more individuals and historical note when it deals with the history of an organization or University department. The biographical/historical note provides a rudimentary context for the descriptions that follow. It is not a biography or a history, but a ready reference that presents an overview of the creator’s life or history and details those aspects critical to a researcher's work with the papers. The biographical/historical note typically is boiled down to one or two sentences to become the first part of the abstract, which then becomes the 545 field in the MARC record.

The biographical/historical note should be brief--from one paragraph to several pages in length, but only rarely more than two pages. A narrative biographical/historical note may be warranted by the complex or multi-dimensional career of the subject. Often, however, this information can be presented chronologically in list form. Remember that the purpose of the note is to provide the researcher with a ready reference to the subject's activities so that information in the rest of the finding aid will have greater meaning. A statement in the series description to the effect that there is correspondence for a certain span of years, for example, is made much more effective if the biographical note indicates that during those years the subject was in school or running a business or retired and engaged in community social work. Emphasis should be on that portion of the subject's career to which the bulk of the collection relates.

It is sometimes possible simply to lift or adapt a note from another source (be sure to credit the original). Biographical or historical data may be abbreviated when the reader can be referred to standard sources such as the Dictionary of American Biography, the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, or to other readily available biographical or historical directories. Minimally, however, basic data should be included in the finding aid even when such abbreviation takes place.

The nature of the collection may help to determine the structure of the biographical/historical note. Not all collections relate to only one person or organization. Some consist of letters of two correspondents, family papers, autograph collections, subject collections, or other forms.

To clarify your own understanding of the context of the collection, it may be useful to write a draft or outline of the biographical/historical note before you begin to process the collection. Wait, however, to complete the note until after the papers have been arranged and described. Your knowledge of the collection may allow you to add information if your preliminary research had turned up little and will help you focus the note to insure that it provides useful context for the materials in the collection.

Example biographical note:

The first African-American woman undergraduate to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Karen L. Parker was born in Salisbury, N.C., and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C. Parker worked for the Winston-Salem Journal before attending UNC-Chapel Hill. She majored in journalism and was elected vice-president of the UNC Press Club and served as editor of the UNC Journalist, the School of Journalism's newspaper, in 1964. After graduating in 1965, Parker was a copy editor for the Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich. She has also worked for the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers before returning to the Winston-Salem Journal. Ellyn Bache used Parker's diary when conducting research for her 1997 novel The Activist's Daughter about student activists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1963.

Example historical note 1:

Rose's Stores, Inc., owned by Variety Wholesalers, Inc., of Henderson, N.C., is a southeastern chain of discount retail stores that began in 1915 with the founding of the first store by Paul H. Rose in Henderson, N.C. Rose's Stores were most common in North Carolina and South Carolina, but, at various times, the company had stores in Virginia, Georgia, Alabama, Maryland, Mississippi, Louisiana, and West Virginia.

Example historical note 2 (UA short):

The Center for Urban and Regional Studies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill was established in 1957 as the Urban Studies Program of the university's Institute for Research in Social Science. In 1969, it became a separately administered center, and in 1988, it became a part of the Department of City and Regional Planning. The Center for Urban and Regional Studies conducts and supports both basic and applied research on urban, regional, and rural planning and policy issues. It is one of the oldest university-based centers of its kind, and its research is focused throughout North Carolina and the United States.

Example historical note 3 (UA long):

Although Louis Round Wilson began teaching summer courses in library science at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill in 1904, the School of Library Science did not open its doors until 17 September 1931. Its first director was Dr. Wilson, who had at that point been the university librarian for thirty years. The school was originally funded by a $100,000 Carnegie Corporation grant, and during that first fall in 1931, thirty-seven students took courses from five faculty members of the school. For many of the early years of the School of Library Science, only an undergraduate degree in Library Science was offered. Dr. Wilson carried the school through its first full accreditation by the American Library Association (ALA) in December 1934, before Dr. Susan Grey Akers took over the directorship in 1935.

Dr. Akers had earned her doctorate in library science from the University of Chicago in 1932, making her the fourth person and the second woman in the nation to receive this doctoral degree. Dr. Akers served as the school's director for seven years before her title changed to dean in 1942. Upon the acquisition of this new title, Dr. Akers became the first woman to hold an academic deanship at the University of North Carolina. Under Dr. Akers's leadership, the bachelor of arts degree that was offered by the school became a bachelor of science degree in library science in 1941.

In March 1951, the university approved the creation of the master of science in library science program, and the first MSLS degrees were awarded in 1953. In 1955 the bachelor of science program was abolished. In September 1970, the School moved to Manning Hall; and in November 1972, the first issue of the School of Library Science newsletter, News from Chapel Hill, was published. In 1980 the first Ph.D. from the School of Library Science was awarded to JoAnn Hardison Bell. In 1987 the faculty of the school voted to include "information science" in the school's name, and in 1988 the name officially became School of Information and Library Science (SILS). The information and library science program continued to expand its degree offerings and began offering an undergraduate minor in information systems in 1997.

SILS had always held high rankings in most academic evaluations; but in 1999, U.S. News and World Report selected it as the top program in the country, a ranking the school has held more often than not since that year. In 2001 the first dual-degree programs were announced, a master's program with the Kenan-Flagler Business School and another with the School of Public Health. In 2003 the bachelor of science degree was revived, and the first two certificate programs were initiated.

Since its creation in 1931, the School of Information and Library Science has graduated more than 4,000 librarians who have gone on to serve in library capacities throughout the world. The goal of the school continues to be "to conduct inquiry devoted to information generation and use, to prepare reflective, adaptive information professionals for action in the present and the future, and to transfer to them an uncompromising advocacy for knowledge" (from its mission statement).

Scope and Content Note

DACS 3.1 Scope and Content Element

The scope and content note (previously called the collection overview) briefly describes the collection's contents and may discuss the distribution and quality of materials in the collection. It usually consists of only one or two paragraphs and seldom exceeds one page. It is often boiled down to become the second paragraph of the abstract, which then becomes the 520 field in the MARC record.

A good way to write the scope and content note is to condense the series descriptions. After giving a general view of what each series contains, you may want to evaluate how well the collection documents significant facets of the creator's life or history. You should also mention material, if any, that a researcher might not expect to find in this collection. Archie K. Davis, for example, was chair of the board of Wachovia Bank, but his papers contain very little about Wachovia, focusing rather on his historical research, his terms as president of the American Bankers Association and United States Chamber of Commerce, and his political activities.

A possible structure for crafting scope and content notes is:

  • The collection includes
  • There are also
  • There are (repeat as needed)
  • Also included

Reference to special circumstances surrounding provenance or other matters is appropriate when you feel the need to explain why the papers are constituted the way they are. An explanation of how the arrangement scheme was established is often appropriate.

For more assistance with writing descriptions of archival material see Finding aid phrases in the Technical Services Stylesheet

Scope and content note example 1:

The collection is the diary, 5 November 1963-11 August 1966, of journalist Karen L. Parker of Winston-Salem, N.C. The entries appear regularly every few weeks in the beginning of the diary and gradually appear less often, ending with entries every several months. Parker began the diary while she was a student majoring in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of the first entries concerns the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, her observations of reactions in Chapel Hill, N.C., to the assassination, and her own thoughts and feelings about it. Diary entries describe her experiences as the first African American woman undergraduate to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, her involvement with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), her participation in civil rights demonstrations against segregation in Chapel Hill, and her arrest after entering a segregated Chapel Hill restaurant. An entry dated 30 April 1964 describes the visit of former segregationist governor of Mississippi Ross R. Barnett to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and his remarks about the inferiority of African Americans. The diary also includes entries detailing Parker's observations and experiences concerning race relations and discrimination in Grand Rapids, Mich., and her changing views of the civil rights movement as she considered the merits of self-defense as opposed to non-violent resistance. Entries throughout the diary describe her thoughts about where she belonged as an educated African-American female during the civil rights era. The Addition of February 2008 consists of a letter from Katherine Kennedy Carmichael, Dean of Women at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to Karen L. Parker's mother, F.D. Parker, concerning Karen L. Parker's arrest on 19 December 1963. Also included are newspaper clippings about Karen L. Parker's accomplishments as a journalism student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Scope and content note example 2:

The collection includes the minutes of corporate committees, corporate documents, tax documents, balance sheets, rent books, and photographs of Rose's Stores, Inc., discount retail stores, with headquarters in Henderson, N.C. The minutes are from meetings of various corporate committees, including the profit sharing trust advisory committee, the auditing committee, the directors' and stockholders' meetings, the executive committee, and the proxy committee. There are also articles and certificates of incorporation; bylaws of the Rose Trucking Co., Inc.; a brief history of the company; and copies of the company newsletter. Also included are tax documents, balance sheets, and rent books. The tax documents, 1919-1945, include income tax returns, capital stock returns, franchise returns, list of depreciations taken on fixtures, and claims made under the Agricultural Adjustment Act. The balance sheets, which record sales and expenses, run continuously from 1921 to 1925. There is also a bound volume of monthly financial reports from stores 27 through 53 for 1935. The earliest rent books appear to have been created in the early 1960s, but they contain a financial and real estate history of each store that extends back to its establishment. Photographs are of various Rose's Stores and employees. There is also a slide show from 1979 with an audiotaped lecture on the process of loss control auditing. Note that materials dated after 1985 are closed to research and have been moved out of the normal run of materials.

Scope and content note example 3:

Records consist of files on research grants and contracts conducted by the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1995-2001. Files contain grant applications, reports, institutional review board forms, and correspondence between agencies.

Scope and content note example 4:

Records include correspondence and other files relating to the administration of and academic programs in the School of Information and Library Science. Deans of the school who are prominent in the records include Louis Round Wilson, Susan Grey Akers, Edward G. Holley, Evelyn H. Daniel, and Barbara B. Moran.

List of Series

DACS 3.2 System of Arrangement Element

Immediately following the scope and content note, you will list the series and subseries so that the researcher has the broad outlines of the collection before reading the descriptions of the individual series.

Series Descriptions

A series description is composed of three parts: the heading (title, inclusive dates, size, arrangement scheme); the narrative description; and the folder/box/container list.

Here are some points towards writing good narrative descriptions:

1. Prepare the folder/box/container list for the series before writing the description. Remember that your description will be used by researchers in conjunction with that list. When appropriate, refer the reader to the list for details. It is often the case that very little description is necessary when folder titles/box lists/container lists are descriptive.

2. Describe the material in a simple, straightforward way. Clarity and accuracy count. If you need help identifying exact terms for the material you have (is it a cash book or a daybook? a pamphlet or a leaflet?), consult the Art and Architecture Thesaurus or the Thesaurus of Graphic Materials. Keep sentences and paragraphs as short as possible; keep in mind, though, that you may end up with some longer sentences with serial lists. Succinct descriptions facilitate use of the materials in the collection and they are far easier to transform into scope and content notes and ultimately into abstracts than are descriptions containing florid prose and extraneous matter.

3. Begin with a brief, but comprehensive, statement about the contents of the series. This usually will be a statement, not a complete sentence, in the following form: Chiefly correspondence between A and B, with a few letters each from C and D, and a small number of other letters. Note that every item in the series is covered by this statement. Many such statements will end with a phrase like "and a few other letters" or "and a small amount of other material." When appropriate, follow this statement with a sentence noting principal subjects, functions, or activities to which the material relates; relative amounts of different kinds of material; significant gaps; and other important information about the series. It is okay if this sentence ends up being a longish serial list.

4. Organize the remainder of the description to parallel the arrangement of the series. A series need not be broken into subseries to have several descriptive paragraphs. The description of a series of chronologically arranged correspondence, for example, might consist of four paragraphs successively treating letters from the periods 1800-1820, 1821-1860, 1861-1865, and 1866-1900. A writings series might be described in a set of paragraphs, each dealing with one type of writing--essays, book reviews, short stories, poems. When arrangement is alphabetical (and sometimes when it is by subject), describe categories of material in order of research value instead of in order of physical arrangement.

5. Determine the appropriate degree of detail according to the research value for each part of the contents. A single valuable letter may warrant its own description, whereas two hundred applications might be handled by a single sentence.

6. Describe the material, not the creator(s). In most cases, the biographical/historical note is the appropriate place for background information that provides context for the documents. The series descriptions refer to the documents themselves.

7. Note the arrangement, if appropriate. If the arrangement is simple (alphabetical or chronological, for example) say so in the series heading. If the series is small, but the arrangement complex, there may be no need to refer to arrangement, since a quick scan of the folder/box/container list will tell a researcher all he or she needs to know. If the series is large and the arrangement complex, a discussion of arrangement should be included following the description of the materials in the series.


When There Are No Series

When small collections consisting chiefly (but not necessarily exclusively) of materials of one type or format can be adequately arranged without series, the biographical/historical note is followed by a brief description in the scope and content note, the <c01> header information, and then the folder (or other container) list. You need not copy the scope and content note into the <c01> header description. If the scope and content note is very brief, you may also copy it into the abstract.

Abstract and Subject Headings

DACS Chapter 3 Content and Structure Elements; Chapter 11 Authority Records; Chapter 12 Form of Names for Persons and Families; Chapter 13 Form of Geographic Names; and Chapter 14 Form of Names for Corporate Bodies

Although EAD physically separates the abstract and online catalog terms, it is helpful to think of these two parts of the finding aid together. When writing the abstract, you will need to think also of the online catalog terms you want assigned to your collection. You will see below that, in writing the abstract, you are for all intents and purposes simultaneously performing describing and cataloging functions.

The abstract is our means of attracting the researcher's attention to the finding aid and MARC record in the online catalog. Although it appears at the beginning of the finding aid, the abstract will usually be one of the very last parts of the finding aid to be written. By that point, you should have a good idea of the collection's strengths and the most important persons or events connected with it. The actual format for the abstract is outlined below, but first let us discuss why the abstract is so important.

General comments:

In writing the abstract, you are not only concisely describing the collection, but also deciding on what roads (access points in the online catalog) can be used to get to the collection. The abstract is used to create a Machine-Readable Catalog (MARC) record for the collection, which becomes one of the millions of MARC records in the international OCLC bibliographic utility. These records are added to the UNC-CH online catalog and are also available through the WorldCat database. The abstract itself becomes the 545 and 520 fields in the MARC record. Access points derived from the abstract become online catalog terms, which are listed in the finding aid and also in the MARC record as 600 fields. Your goal is to write an abstract that generates the access points that can lead the right researchers to your collection.

Only names and subjects significant enough to receive mention in the finding aid are significant enough to merit consideration for mention in the abstract. Sometimes it helps to make a list of important access points as you process. Write the series descriptions so that they include the access points that still seem important as you describe each series. In the end, you can write the abstract by boiling down the series descriptions to their essential points.

Any name or subject that will be listed as an access point MUST appear in some form in the abstract. This eliminates "blind" references (a name or subject access point exists, but the abstract does not say how it is related to the collection) that are extremely frustrating to researchers. With the finding aid as the starting point for selection, the pool of potential access points is considerably smaller than it would be if you were choosing access points directly from the papers. In fact, it may be useful to think of names and subjects that you have included in finding aid descriptions as having made the first cut on their way to becoming access points.

Deciding what makes the second cut (inclusion in the abstract) is no easy matter. It is important to note that, as with other manuscript work, judgment allied with good common sense plays an important part in selecting which names and subjects become access points to a given collection. You will, of course, want to provide access to a collection through the creator whose name gave rise to the collection's title. Therefore, one certain access point for the Wesley Critz George Papers is George himself. He may also be a catalog term (online or otherwise) in collections other than his own. Making him an access point to his own collection assures that all collections in which he figures significantly will be retrieved when his name is searched. You will decide on the other access points as you write your abstract. In Archives Manuscripts: Arrangement and Description (Chicago: SAA, 1977), David Gracy suggests that you look for the following:

  • persons of historical importance who appear in the collection to any degree greater than a passing mention;
  • persons important in the collection (that is, persons, however historically obscure, by, to, or about whom a significant quantity of documents were written [N.B.: it may not be important to list people here for whom no researcher will ever search by name, but you may want to mention their occupation or race, if those are categories for which you would expect a researcher to search]); and
  • events, matters, institutions, businesses, and activities that are either historically important or are important in the collection.

A fourth category that should be added relates to the opportunity to alert researchers to unusual or unexpected materials. Suppose that, under a stage name, the daughter of an early 19th-century North Carolina country doctor became a moderately successful circus performer. If no access point shows the way to these materials, how would a researcher working on unusual occupations of 19th-century women know to look at the finding aid to the papers of a country doctor for information on the early life of a trapeze artist?

A reasonable balance must be struck between historical importance and content, and, not surprisingly, no hard and fast rules can be applied. If the papers show that their creator once went hunting for deer in a forest, do we immediately select Hunting, Forests, Deer, and Outdoor recreation for inclusion in the abstract with an eye to making them all online access points? It depends. If her papers reveal that she was a renowned hunter, Hunting would probably be an appropriate access point. If it was a really, really good description of hunting that stands out in its potential value to researchers, then Hunting and/or Outdoor recreation may be appropriate access points. If Abraham Lincoln wrote to her for advice on deer hunting, "Dear Diana. How do you stalk deer? Abe,." Hunting and Deer probably would not be access points, but Lincoln most likely would be because anything Lincoln has artifactual if not evidentiary value.

Writing the abstract that generates the right online catalog terms requires you to exercise your intellect. Just remember that a researcher cannot extract from the catalog what you have not put into it. For example, you will note that online catalog terms use a standardized precoordinated vocabulary. Keyword searching, however, makes your entire abstract (the 545 and 520 fields in the MARC record) searchable. Using the online catalog terms, you would have to type Confederate States of America--Social conditions (an online catalog term that became a 600 field in the MARC record) to find materials on homefront activities in the South during the Civil War. Think a bit and you will see that you can make searching easier if you include the words homefront during the Civil War in the keyword-searchable abstract.

Careful and logical abstract writing provides the researcher with a powerful research tool. This is a heavy responsibility, but it is not on your shoulders alone. Your supervising archivist is always available for consultations on abstract writing. In the finding aid review process, others may also have good suggestions about access points to include or to drop. In most cases, you will also get to review the final online catalog terms to make sure that they are adequate and accurate.

Writing the abstract/subject headings:

The abstract's format closely mimics the MARC record it will produce. The abstract consists of two parts, one containing a biographical/historical statement (the 545 field in the MARC record) about the collection's creator or creators and the other describing the papers themselves (the 520 field in the MARC record). The biographical/historical statement should be brief, containing only background that is especially important to identifying the collection creator and understanding the papers.

The summary description contains one or more sentences giving an overview of the materials found in the collection and placing both the creator and the papers in context in terms of time and place. If the bulk of the papers focuses on a narrower time period than the collection's dates, the opening sentence is the proper place to indicate this. The remainder of the abstract should list major persons and events reflected in the collection, whether in the life of the creator (if the collection's focus is primarily personal) or in a larger arena. Be sure to indicate geographic parameters. The abstract may conclude with a brief list of subjects of importance and or persons of note, perhaps prominent correspondents or family members who loom large in the collection.

You, as processor, may handle the online catalog term list in either of the following ways:

  • You may make a list of important access points (subject headings and names) in your own words to assist the departmental cataloger in choosing terms;
  • You may hie yourself to the authorities that be and make a stab at writing the final list yourself. Your supervising archivist and/or the departmental cataloger will point the way.

Abstract and subject headings example 1:

Abstract: The first African-American woman undergraduate to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Karen L. Parker was born in Salisbury, N.C., and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C. Parker worked for the Winston-Salem Journal before attending UNC-Chapel Hill. She majored in journalism and was elected vice-president of the UNC Press Club and served as editor of the UNC Journalist, the School of Journalism's newspaper, in 1964. After graduating in 1965, Parker was a copy editor for the Grand Rapids Press in Grand Rapids, Mich. She also worked for the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers before returning to the Winston-Salem Journal. The collection is Karen L. Parker's diary with entries 5 November 1963-11 August 1966. The entries appear regularly every few weeks in the beginning of the diary and gradually appear less often, ending with entries every several months. Parker began the diary while she was a student majoring in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. One of the first entries concerns the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, her observations of reactions in Chapel Hill to the assassination, and her own thoughts and feelings about it. Diary entries describe her experiences as the first African American woman undergraduate to attend UNC-Chapel Hill, her involvement with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), her participation in civil rights demonstrations against segregation in Chapel Hill, and her arrest after entering a segregated Chapel Hill restaurant. An entry dated 30 April 1964 describes the visit of former segregationist governor of Mississippi Ross R. Barnett to the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and his remarks about the inferiority of African Americans. The diary also includes entries detailing Parker's observations and experiences concerning race relations and discrimination in Grand Rapids, Mich., while copy editor for the Grand Rapids Press and her changing views of the civil rights movement as she considered the merits of self-defense as opposed to non-violent resistance. Entries throughout the diary describe her thoughts about where she belonged as an educated African-American female during the civil rights era. The Addition of February 2008 consists of a letter from Katherine Kennedy Carmichael, Dean of Women at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, to Karen L. Parker's mother, F.D. Parker, concerning Karen L. Parker's arrest on 19 December 1963. Also included are newspaper clippings about Karen L. Parker's accomplishments as a journalism student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Subject headings:

  • African American college students--North Carolina--Chapel Hill.
  • African American women journalists--Michigan.
  • African American women journalists--North Carolina.
  • African Americans--Michigan.
  • African Americans--North Carolina--History--20th century.
  • Barnett, Ross R. (Ross Robert), 1898-1987.
  • Carmichael, Katherine Kennedy, 1912-1982.
  • Chapel Hill (N.C.)--History--20th century.
  • Chapel Hill (N.C.)--Race relations.
  • Chapel Hill (N.C.)--Social life and customs.
  • Civil rights demonstrations--North Carolina--Chapel Hill.
  • Civil rights movements--North Carolina.
  • Congress of Racial Equality.
  • Diaries.
  • Education, Higher--North Carolina.
  • Grand Rapids (Mich.)--Race relations.
  • Grand Rapids (Mich.)--Social life and customs.
  • Kennedy, John F. (John Fitzgerald), 1917-1963--Assassination.
  • Michigan--Race relations.
  • North Carolina--Race relations.
  • Parker, Karen L.
  • Segregation in higher education--North Carolina.
  • Student movements--North Carolina.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--African American students.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--History--20th century.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--Women students.
  • Women college students--North Carolina--Chapel Hill.
  • Women college students--North Carolina--History--20th century.

Abstract and subject headings example 2:

Abstract: Rose's Stores, Inc., owned by Variety Wholesalers, Inc., of Henderson, N.C., is a southeastern chain of discount retail stores that began in 1915 with the founding of the first store by Paul H. Rose in Henderson, N.C. The collection includes minutes and other papers, 1927-1996; financial records, 1919-1995; photographs, 1930s-1980s; and other items. Minutes relate to the profit sharing trust advisory committee, the auditing committee, the directors and stockholders meetings, the executive committee, and the proxy committee. Other corporate papers include articles and certificates of incorporation; bylaws of the Rose Trucking Co., Inc.; a brief history of the company; and copies of the company newsletter. Tax documents, 1919-1945, include income tax returns, capital stock returns, franchise returns, list of depreciations taken on fixtures, and claims made under the Agricultural Adjustment Act. Balance sheets, 1921-1925, record sales and expenses. There is also a bound volume of monthly financial reports from stores 27 through 53 for 1935. The earliest rent books appear to have been created in the early 1960s, but they contain a financial and real estate history of each store that extends back to its establishment. There are also photographs of various Rose's Stores and employees and a 1979 slide show with audiotaped lecture on loss control auditing.

Subject headings:

  • Department stores--North Carolina.
  • Discount houses (Retail trade)--North Carolina.
  • Henderson (N.C.)--Economic conditions.
  • Merchants--North Carolina--History--20th century.
  • North Carolina--Commerce--History--20th century.
  • Rose's Stores, Inc.
  • Stores, Retail--North Carolina.

Abstract and subject headings example 3:

Abstract: Established in 1957, the Center for Urban and Regional Studies of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill conducts and supports both basic and applied research on urban, regional, and rural planning and policy issues. Records consist of files on research grants and contracts conducted by the Center for Urban and Regional Studies, 1995-2001. Files contain grant applications, reports, institutional review board forms, and correspondence between agencies.

Subject headings:

  • City planning--Research.
  • Education, Higher--North Carolina--History.
  • Regional planning--Research.
  • Research institutes--North Carolina.
  • Rural conditions--Research.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--Faculty.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--Research grants.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Center for Urban and Regional Studies.
  • Urban policy--Research.

Abstract and subject headings example 4:

Abstract: Library science was first offered in the university's summer school shortly after the turn of the century. In 1931 the School of Library Science was established to offer a baccalaureate program in librarianship. It was the second such school in the Southeast. In 1951 a master's degree program was established. In 1987 the name of the school changed to School of Information and Library Science. Records include correspondence and other files relating to the administration of and academic programs in the School of Information and Library Science. Deans of the school who are prominent in the records include Louis Round Wilson, Susan Grey Akers, Edward G. Holley, Evelyn H. Daniel, and Barbara B. Moran.

Subject headings:

  • Akers, Susan Grey, 1889-
  • Daniel, Evelyn H.
  • Education, Higher--North Carolina--History.
  • Holley, Edward G.
  • Library education--North Carolina--History.
  • Moran, Barbara B.
  • Universities and colleges--North Carolina--Departments.
  • University of North Carolina (1793-1962)--Curricula.
  • University of North Carolina (1793-1962)--Graduate work.
  • University of North Carolina (1793-1962)--History.
  • University of North Carolina (1793-1962). School of Library Science.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--Curricula.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--Graduate work.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill--History.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. School of Information and Library Science.
  • University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. School of Library Science.
  • Wilson, Louis Round, 1876-1979.

Finishing the Finding Aid

Upon completing your finding aid, submit it to your supervising archivist, who will review it and return it to you with questions and comments. When the finding aid is done to everyone's satisfaction, the supervising archivist will notify the departmental cataloger, who will do final editing of the finding aid. The departmental cataloger will also prepare the MARC record(s) as required and load it into the online catalog. After final editing, she may want you to review the finding aid to make sure that any changes made in the review/editing process have not led to inaccuracies and that her proposed catalog access points are adequate and accurate. The departmental cataloger also uploads the finding aid to the web. The departmental cataloger usually uploads new and revised finding aids in batches and then sends an announcement/call for comments email to staff.

In the end, the finding aid goes beyond you and your supervising archivist and becomes a team effort. Soliciting input from other staff members serves several purposes, not the least of which is to make formal in-house announcement of the addition of materials to the Library’s holdings. This is particularly important to Research and Instructional Services staff, since the more they know about what we have the better research assistance they can provide. Staff review of finding aids also allows other staff members to contribute special knowledge they may have about the individuals or topics important in your collection. They may also be aware of related collections, either within The Wilson Library or at other institutions, that researchers using your collection should know about. Finally, it is simply true that typos, inconsistencies, and unclear references that have slipped by you and your supervising archivist may be picked up by other, fresher eyes. Thus, comments on the finding aid can add to the processor’s knowledge and strengthen the finding aid as a research tool.

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