Friday, August 25th, 2017...10:39 am

What Do Those Archivists Do? An Inside Look at Creating Titles

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DACS Bingo This post is part of a new series, “Behind the Scenes at Houghton” giving a glimpse into the inner workings of the library’s mission to support teaching and research. Thanks to Adrien Hilton, Head, Manuscript Section, for contributing this post.

I started as the Head of the Manuscript Section at Houghton Library in February 2016. As a unit, we consist of seven archivists and manuscript cataloguers and function as the group to accession, arrange and describe, and make accessible online descriptions of Houghton’s manuscripts and archives, this includes single items as well as multi-box collections. We are part of the Technical Services Department comprised of book catalogers, acquisitions and end-processing, and metadata librarians.

The library and special collections landscape is rapidly changing. In Technical Services, like other functional areas in the profession, we can no longer afford to rely on traditional ways of thinking and doing. What may have worked 50 years ago or even 5-10 years ago is already obsolete. There are new theories that embrace more equitable and open access to our library spaces, collections, and collection descriptions. Navigating this ever-evolving environment is one of the most exciting challenges about being an information professional today. We must continually learn and engage with both the theory and practice of archives.

I am currently co-chair of the Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) Technical Subcommittee on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (TS-DACS). We have an ambitious new program in addition to the basic charge of maintaining and educating other archivists about how to use the standard. Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) is a set of principles and rules used by archivists to guide and formulate useful and consistent archival description. Excellent! But why should you care? Consistent archival description across special collections allows researchers to better understand and interpret what it is they are looking at. For instance, all finding aids if they are DACS-compliant must have the same minimum set of data elements. Those data elements must contain specific types of information and be formulated in a consistent way. From a researcher’s perspective understanding more about archival description and how it is created might allow for a deeper understanding of the materials, how and why they came to Houghton, how and why they are described, and what the archivist did before they became available in the reading room.

TS-DACS has two primary goals this year: rewrite the Principles to Archival Description in order to better reflect current theory and practice and enhance and expand our educational offerings about DACS. To achieve the latter objective, the committee led a volunteer effort to create a series of webinars and quizzes on the fundamentals of archival description. SAA offered a two-day workshop on DACS. With our new flipped classroom model, less workshop time is spent lecturing and more time is spent actually doing archival description. The now one-day workshop is much more focused on real world exercises and includes active engagement, learning by doing, and even a game of BINGO.

DACS Bingo

I decided to test the webinars and the new exercises on Houghton’s Manuscript Section, which would provide both assessment on the new content and an opportunity for team building and growth for the section.

The opening exercise of the day is a fun ice-breaker. It consists of a play on Hemingway’s six-word memoir in which we describe archival description in six words. The Houghton staff did not disappoint with their poetic and literary prowess. Some of my favorites included:

“Giving context to history’s detritus”

“Describe the forest and the trees”

“Much Stuff, No Access: Make Some”

Another highlight for me was really digging in and creating DACS-compliant titles for groupings of material. A DACS-compliant title has two, and sometimes three, parts: creator, nature of the unit, and sometimes a topical designation. Titles are short statements (not bibliographic records) that uniquely identify a grouping or item. Archivists generally supply titles (rather than transcribe) after analysis and interpretation of content and context. Titles and the rules for creating them apply to collections, to folders, and to items.

Let’s break down the three parts.

Creator: this is the individual or organization responsible for the creation or compilation of the material. It is usually written in natural language (first name last name).

Nature of the unit: this is a format designation. At the collection level we generally use one of three terms: papers which represent the variety of materials that a person generates; records for the variety of materials that an organization generates; and lastly, collection for an artificial assemblage of materials, usually collated by a common subject.

Topical designation: if the creator and the nature of the unit do not provide enough specificity to the materials or the materials are tightly about a particular topic, event, or person, providing a brief subject is helpful.

Jared Sparks papers is an example of a standards-compliant title. But let’s say those Jared Sparks papers are really only made up of correspondence, a more accurate title might be Jared Sparks correspondence. Going further, let’s say that the Jared Sparks correspondence only concerns Harvard University. We might more precisely distinguish this grouping of letters as Jared Sparks correspondence on Harvard University.

Another concept we touched on was whether or not to repeat information. Below is how you might currently see three letters within the Aubrey Beardsley papers described in a Houghton finding aid:

Beardsley, Aubrey, 1872-1898. Autograph manuscript letter to L. C. Smithers, Esq., 1898 April 1 (1 letter)

Beardsley, Aubrey, 1872-1898. Autograph manuscript letter to L. C. Smithers, Esq., 1898 April 10 (1 letter)

Beardsley, Aubrey, 1872-1898. Autograph manuscript letter to L. C. Smithers, Esq., 1898 April 12 (1 letter)

If we were following DACS, you’d see something like this:

Aubrey Beardsley letters to L.C. Smithers, 1898 April 1-12 (3 letters)

The creator is in natural language, the format is letters, and L.C. Smithers is our more specific topical designation. Also, you’ll notice the lack of repetition. This consolidation requires less reading and allows for easier access appropriate materials.

In the example above, the collection’s title is Aubrey Beardsley papers, where Aubrey Beardsley is the creator and papers is the nature of the unit. It is assumed, unless otherwise noted, that descriptions of that collection’s parts were created by Beardsley. We don’t have to say it again. So in this case, the best title is as follows:

Letters to L.C. Smithers, 1898 April 1-12 (3 letters)

The context in which the letters and the description are found (Aubrey Beardsley papers) carries a portion of the descriptive burden for us! This approach allows us to describe materials more efficiently, both in terms of time and space. More description means greater discoverability for our researchers and that’s a plus all around!

Following DACS might not be the most exciting part of being an archivist, but it is through the use of standards that we create consistent description. This consistent description is more easily shared and understood by archivists and researchers.


  • Fantastic overview of a complex process, thank you Adrien! You touch on just those parts of the DACS title which always challenge me. Very helpful.

  • James Capobianco
    August 30th, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    I agree with Andrea! Thanks so much for this overview. For a public services librarian with a less than perfect knowledge of cataloging standards, this was really enlightening.