Archives can be like a black box. Unlike libraries, where you can grab books and other items off the shelf, many archives don’t let people freely browse materials. This lack of transparency and the high volume of materials in archives makes description important. Description is like carving a window into the black box; the better the description, the bigger the window.
What makes a description “better”?
The answer will depend on your perspective. For some, more is better; for others, too much information is as overwhelming as a 10-page restaurant menu. Whether lengthy or brief, descriptions of archival materials should help people answer the question, “Are these materials possibly related to my research?”
Description provides access points, key pieces of information like dates, names of people, organizations, places, types of materials (e.g. photos, letters, interviews), and topics. Looking for something about agriculture in the 1950’s or photos from UNC-Chapel Hill in the 1920’s? The combination of access points like “topic + date” or “type of material + name + date” can give you a sense of which materials are relevant.
There are many challenges for archives when creating useful descriptions. An archive might contain millions of items, and items keep coming. Large archives that manage a high volume of materials and continue to receive high volumes may choose to only create broad descriptions that summarize a group of items (called “collection-level description”) rather than describe each item. Smaller archives that receive lower volumes of materials may have capacity to create more granular, specific descriptions, possibly describing individual items.
Another challenge is the role archives have played in omitting or distorting histories of people of color, women, and other marginalized groups. If you’ve been to an archive and had difficulty finding information about your family, community, or people who look like you, you’re not alone. Traditionally, archives have preserved the materials of the privileged—particularly white, wealthy men and their communities. Additionally, the status quo for archives until recently has misrepresented colonial, racial, gender, and other violence. For example, collections donated by families of white enslavers may venerate the family and obscure the violent business of slavery. Often, enslaved people are not mentioned; if they are, descriptions quote negative or patronizing language of the enslavers. Descriptions may not mention enslaved people by name even when available, although names can be important access points for learning about one’s ancestors.
Access points including names of people (W.E.B. Du Bois and Langston Hughes) and organizations (Howard University) as well as topics (North Carolina family social life and customs; Texas family social life and customs; United States Folklore). From the Guy Benton Johnson Papers #3826, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Du Bois, W.E.B. (William Edward Burghard), 1868-1963.
Families—North Carolina—Social life and customs.
Families—Texas—Social life and customs.
Howard University.–Board of Trustees.
Hughes, Langston, 1902-1967
This description of a collection of 400 items from the Ravenel family is an example archival description that celebrates Henry Ravenel while obscuring his role as an enslaver. Brief mentions of enslaved people do not provide names. Although some women are mentioned by name, little else about them is shared. From Ravenel Family Papers #1022, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
1.0 feet of linear shelf space (approximately 400 items)
Descendents of early French Huguenots, the Ravenel and related DuBose families of South Carolina ranked among the most prominent members of the state’s planter class. William Francis Ravenel (b. 1828), son of physician/planter Henry Ravenel (1790-1867), achieved note as a lawyer and planter in the Berkeley District. His half-brother, Henry W. Ravenel (1814-1887), became a well-respected botanist. Around 1857, William Ravenel married Ellen DuBose, whose brother, Theodore Samuel DuBose (b. 1785), was a graduate of Yale and a prosperous planter in the Fairfield District. The collection includes papers, chiefly 1850-1890, pertain primarily to estate settlements and postwar plantation finances, and include deeds, wills, indentures, receipts, and cotton factor accounts. Estates represented include the following: Abigail Ravenel (fl. 1840s); Henry Ravenel, Edwin DuBose (fl. 1859), Jonathan Eady (fl. 1850), Frederick Simons (fl. 1880s), and Rebecca H. Waring (fl. 1880s). Personal correspondence and other miscellaneous papers also appear, including livestock records, 1790-1897, and a brief journal of two unidentified sisters in the 1840s. Information on slaves owned by the Ravenels and other families often appears in the correspondence and and estate papers in such items as slave bills of sale, a birth list, and receipts for clothes and other materials distributed to slaves.
Despite these challenges, what’s important is to make description work for your archive and your community. That may mean filling out a paper form or a computerized spreadsheet as you scan documents, or recording short audio interviews during community events because that’s the best way to capture important information about the materials. It may mean adding short descriptions to videos on YouTube or on a website. If your description of a historical item is helping people find what they are looking for and understand what they’ve found, then it is doing its job.
Below are two videos from the State Archives of North Carolina that explain the basic steps involved in organizing archival collections for safe, long-term storage.