Archive Descriptions

An Introduction to Archive Descriptions

Archives are unique collections, and so descriptions will vary quite widely. However, you will find the same basic information for most descriptions. The collections are catalogued by the holding institution, and practices may vary between institutions.

This page focuses on descriptions on the Archives Hub, but they are typical of descriptions you will find elsewhere.

Sections of an Archive Description

Descriptions include core sections, that are common to all entries, and additional sections, that may be included in some descriptions but not in others.

Descriptions include a 'Brief' version, with core content information, and a 'Detailed' version, which shows a hierarchical tree structure, if one exists, listing all of the described sections within a collection.

Is is important to bear in mind that a 'lower level' entry, such as a series or item description, that forms just one part of a complete collection description, is likely to be brief, sometimes only with a reference, title and date. The title may not make much sense unless it is viewed in the context of the whole description, e.g. 'Commonplace book' is the title of an item that forms part of the Sir Hugh Casson Papers.

The key sections are:

Reference Number: The reference used to describe the collection, often a combination of letters and numbers, such as 'MGF'.

Title: The title of the collection, intended to give an overall sense of what the collection is and who created it, e.g. 'British Olympic Association Archive Collection', or 'Papers of Millicent Garrett Fawcett'.

Dates of Creation: The covering dates of the material, from the oldest to the most recent item within the collection. Typically something like '1900-1952', or maybe more specific, such as 'January 1914 - March 1915'. Sometimes dates will be more approximate, such as 'Early 19th century'.

Language: The language of the collection, often English, but may be in any language, or a combination of languages. Some collections are in several languages, sometimes quite obscure ones!

Physical Description: The size of the collection, often given as the number of boxes or a measurement in linear or cubic metres.

Scope and Content: A description of the overall contents of the collection, which may be brief or very detailed. It may list all the series within the collection.

Arrangement: The way the archive is organised, which may include a list of the series within the collection.

Adminstrative/Biographical History: Information about the creator of the archive. For example, a biography of Millicent Garrett Fawcett or a description of The National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies.

Conditions Governing Access: May include important information about access, such as whether the collection is fully open for consultation and whether you need to make an appointment.

Subjects / Personal Names / Corporate Names / Geographic Names: These are 'index terms' added by the creator of the description. They are significant people, organisations, subjects and places associated with the archive. On the Archives Hub they are clickable links, to take you to more archives that relate to the same topic area.

Content of a Description on the Hub

Descriptions on the Archives Hub can range from being very summary through to being highly detailed. Cataloguers may choose to add information about use and reproduction, publications based on the collection, surrogate copies, and so forth. The Hub 'Detailed Description' will show all the fields, whereas the 'Brief Description' only shows the main content fields.

Brief Description

  • The brief description includes the core information about an archive collection: such as title, date, creator and extent.
  • It includes the scope and content, which describes the material, and the administrative or biographical history, which describes the creator.
  • It shows associated names and subjects for the collection.
  • It does not include detailed descriptions of series and items within the collection (not all collections have this information).

Detailed Description

  • The detailed description may provide additional information, including information about access, use, appraisal, acquisition and accruals.
  • This information is useful to get a fuller sense of the collection, but it is not considered core to the description.
  • The detailed description also provides the full hierarchy, where a collection is catalogued more fully, down to series and item level.



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The first part of a collection description, showing the 'core information' and the 'scope and content' section.

An 'item level' description, showing the hierarchy that leads back to the main collection description.


This page is part of: Using Archives: A Guide for the Inexperienced