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Excavating archival description: from collection to data level

Lesley L. Parilla (Smithsonian Libraries, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, District of Columbia, USA)
Rebecca Morgan (Special Collections Library, American Museum of Natural History, New York, New York, USA)
Christina Fidler (The Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at Berkeley, University of California, Berkeley, California, USA)

Digital Library Perspectives

ISSN: 2059-5816

Article publication date: 14 August 2017




The purpose of this paper is to discuss three projects from three institutions that are dealing with challenges with natural sciences field documentation. Each is working to create the collection, item and data-level description required so that researchers can fully use the data to study how biodiversity has changed over time and space. Libraries, archives and museums recognize the need to make content searchable across material type. To create online catalogs that would make this possible, ideally, all records would describe one item. Museums and libraries describe their materials at the item level; however, archives must balance the need to describe the collection as a whole alongside needs of collection materials that may require more description to reconnect with library and museum items. There is a growing determination inside of archives to increase this flow of data, particularly for the natural sciences, by creating workflows that provide additional description to make these data discoverable. This process is a bit like drilling into the earth: each level must be described before the next can be dealt with.


The piece describes challenges, approaches and workflows of three institutions developing deeper levels of description for archival materials that will be made available online to a specialized audience. It also describes the methods developed so that the material’s data can eventually be accessed at a more granular level and linked to related resources.


Current systems, schema and standards are adapted as necessary, and the natural sciences archival community is still working to develop best practices. However, they are getting much closer through the collaboration made possible through grants in the recent years.


The work described in this paper is ongoing, and best practices resulting from the work are still under development.



Parilla, L.L., Morgan, R. and Fidler, C. (2017), "Excavating archival description: from collection to data level", Digital Library Perspectives, Vol. 33 No. 3, pp. 195-202.



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