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Deconstructing Archival Description

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Meeting #8: Deconstructing Archival Description @ Yale (and Beyond)

Wednesday, July 9, 4pm

BRBL Room 39

Discussion leader: Jennifer Meehan



In a joint article entitled “Stories and Names: Archival Description as Narrating Records and Constructing Meanings,” Wendy Duff and Verne Harris offer a deconstructive analysis of "the what and why of archival description" and highlight the implications of this analysis for endeavors to define descriptive standards.  They end by calling for a "liberatory" approach to archival description and standardization.  Their article will serve as a starting point for a discussion of how archivists at Yale might or might not respond to such a call, and what this might mean for local implementation of descriptive standards (such as DACS, EAD, and eventually EAC) as well as current and future developments in local descriptive tools and systems.





Wendy Duff and Verne Harris, “Stories and Names: Archival Description as Narrating Records and Constructing Meanings,” Archival Science 2 (2002): 263-285.




The authors of this essay, coming from very different traditions and modes of archival discourse, explore together archival description as a field of archival thinking and practice. Their shared conviction is that records are always in the process of being made, and that the stories of their making are parts of bigger stories understandable only in the ever-changing broader contexts of society. The exploration begins with an interrogation of the traditional and ever-valid questions of the what and the why of archival description. Thereafter they offer a deconstruction of these questions and of the answers commonly proffered. In these sections of the essay their concern is with descriptive architecture, the analysis covering a number of specific architectures and including only oblique references to descriptive standardization. The concluding section attempts to draw out the implications of their analysis for endeavours - irrespective of the architectures being used - to define, and to justify, descriptive standards. Their call is not to dispense with standardization, but rather to create space for a liberatory approach which engages creatively the many dangers of standardization.



Related Sources:


    Describing Archives: A Content Standard (Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2007)   


    Encoded Archival Description


    Encoded Archival Context


    International Standard for Archival Description (General)


    International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families


     International Standard for Describing Functions  ISDF ENG.pdf


    International Standard for Describing Institutions with Archival Holdings ISDIAH Eng_0.pdf




NOTES FOR DISCUSSION (posted by JM, 7/10/08)



Article comes from one of two thematic issues of Archival Science that explore the theme of “archives, records, and power,” guest edited by Terry Cook and Joan Schwartz . 


The authors of the article, Wendy Duff and Verne Harris, come from very different backgrounds: Duff from the more mainstream North American, or more specifically, Canadian, archival discourse, where she was heavily involved in developing national and international standards for description; and Harris from the “postmodernist” stream of archival discourse that has challenged the mainstream and resisted any form of standardization.  The differences between the authors lead to there being certain tensions in the article—tensions that they hope are creative ones.


Tensions of the article point to the tensions between theory and praxis…


Push and pull in the article:

  • Between a need to expose and question the underlying structures and power relationships of archival description; and a need to produce and structure descriptive outputs in consistent and uniform way in order to support sharing across systems
  • Between a need for opening up archival description to other ways of representing records or naming the information in records; and a practical need to draw certain limits around a body of material and our representation of it in order to get any work done or to get any finding aids finished and put online


Broadly the main parts of the discussion include:

  • The three streams of archival discourse—traditional archival theory focused on arrangement and description; appraisal theory focused on selecting the sliver of a sliver of a sliver of records, and postmodern theory focused on challenging orthodoxies of archival theory—and the need for these to be integrated and allowed to cross-inform one another
  • Different descriptive architectures of fonds-based and series system—teasing out and explaining some of the different perspectives at play in archival description (different views of provenance and the purpose of description)
  • The part that I am going to focus on: A deconstructive reading of archival description that highlights two fundamental aspects of archival description: telling stories and naming.


Some critical insights from the discussion of descriptive architectures:

  • Questioning the assumption that archival description produces information objects, or finding aids, that are static objects; and that these information objects in turn are designed to represent equally static objects, that is, the collection being described
  • Archivists have not done enough research to understand the needs of users and to develop user-friendly architectures and interfaces
  • Archival descriptive architectures should not dictate only one way of describing
  • No approach to archival description can escape the fact that it is a way of constructing knowledge nor can it escape the biases of its developers.


Telling stories—archival description as a form of narrativity

  • While narrative refers to the story being told, narrativity refers to the processes by which a story is both presented and interpreted. [film theory]
  • Narrativity structurally, to say nothing of its content, inevitably brings a certain fictionalization of “the facts”
  • Archival description is not a neutral container, but shapes, even determines, the narrative content in significant ways
  • There is power at play in archival description and archivists are political players—records contain many potential stories and the power of the archivists stems from his/her position to decide which stories will be told; we can convince ourselves that we are working on the side of good, but Duff & Harris are quick to point out that the line between constructive and oppressive power is always shifting and porous.
  • Call for archivists to come to terms with the reality of story telling in their descriptive work OR ELSE remain vulnerable to “the dangers of story” (moralizing judgments and becoming an instrument for social control)
  • Call for archivists to acknowledge the metanarrative, or the overarching and sweeping explanation, of archival description: impartial custodian, respect des fonds, the principle of provenance, original order, etc.


What can archivists do about telling stories?

  • The first step is to acknowledge that archival description is a fraught terrain
  • Other steps include:
    • Disclosing our assumptions, biases, interpretations [colophon]
    •  Investigating the aspects of records that are not being described, and the voices that are not being heard; in other words, engaging with that which is marginalized
    • Exploring new ways to open up archival description to other ways of representing records or naming the information in the records
    • Creating descriptive systems that are more permeable; creating holes that allow in the voices of our users [annotations]
    • Attempting to better understand the users of archives


Naming—archival descriptive standards as metanames

  • Each concept is capable of being expressed in a variety of different ways but in standardized description it can only be assigned one term or data element.  These then become the “metanames” or “titular names” which inevitably force archivists to describe very different material in very different contexts in similar ways; all users are forced to use these “names” in order to access particular holding, thereby shaping their understanding of them
  • Dangers associated with standards: they involve the exercise of power and processes of valorization and silencing; any standardization involves degrees of violence; however the dangers of standardization should not be equated with badness


The case for not dismissing descriptive standards out of hand:

  • Taking too hard line of an approach to deconstructing archival description will result in paralysis
  • Collaborative projects requires standards
  • Descriptive standards are one of the few direct means available to use for troubling and challenging the replication of power relations in myriad archival sites and localities


A call for a liberatory descriptive standard…which should include the following attributes:

  • It must refrain from presenting itself as “natural”…it should make known the traces of its construction and  the biases of its creators
  • It must emerge from a process that is inclusive and transparent thereby ensuring accountability
  • It must embrace the work of record making rather than mere record keeping—this would mean encouraging documentation of continuing archival intervention…finding ways of documenting the continuing use of records
  • It must consider the needs of diverse user groups
  • It must require engagement with the marginalized and silenced and create spaces for sub-narratives and counter-narratives
  • It must seek ways of troubling its own status as a metanarrative; it must push the capacity of description to accommodate partial or multiple rather than complete closure





How might archivists at Yale, as implementers of archival descriptive standards, respond to Duff & Harris’ call for a liberatory approach to description and standardization?  Do we want to, do we need to respond to such a call?  If so, how?  If not, why not?


What is lost and what is gained in implementing archival descriptive standards?  How do we understand the tradeoffs involved?  How do we maintain a balance between those tradeoffs?


What about the finding aid as the metanarrative of the collection???  Presenting a simplified, monolithic representation of what in reality is a much more complex reality; privileging one reading of the record—one reality—over all others


Can the standards-based finding aid function as anything but a metanarrative?  It seems to me that all the issues raised by Duff & Harris and others (such as Heather MacNeil and Tom Nesmith) and such as Gerald Stone at the recent ACA conference, who expressly looked beyond archival standards, cannot be addressed or resolved within the finding aid as currently conceived, constructed and created.  Are we asking the finding aid to do too much?  Do any of the recent standards or those in development provide any alternative to the one reading-one reality of the finding aid?


Both MacNeil and Nesmith have suggested, and I am inclined to agree with them, that broader descriptive systems and networks are needed to adequately capture the complex realities and various contextualities of records, that the finding aid should be one tool among many; that it should be unseated from its privileged status and repositioned as part of broader network of “documentation relating to the history, appraisal, preservation, use and interpretation of records over time.”  There would still be a place for standards-based description in assisting researchers to navigate a linked and interactive network.



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