Describing Collections: Introduction

Note: This blog post contains many references to parts of a finding aid. It may help to reference another blog post, So, what is a finding aid? if you have any questions.

How many archivists do you know? If you’re reading this blog, probably at least three, but if you were the average American the answer may be “not many.” So, it’s no surprise that when I (Veronica) tell people I’m an archivist I get a lot of questions about what that actually entails. One of my main responsibilities, describing collections, is perhaps the least understood by the general public.

The short explanation that I usually give is that when a collection comes to the Archives, I describe the contents to make the collection available to researchers; this description helps researchers determine if there is material in the collection they need for their research. Of course, a lot more goes into describing collections than just that, and I think understanding the effort and care it takes to properly describe a collection is important to understanding the value of archives.

The way we describe collections varies on the collection itself; sometimes we describe at the box level, sometimes the box and folder level, and sometimes neither. If the collection can be described in one or two paragraphs under “collection summary” in the collection guide, then we do not add a container list. This typically helps for smaller collections; collections that are a folder or maybe even a box or two.

Usually we keep collections in the order that they arrive at the Archives, and sometimes we divide it into series. Sometimes collections come to us already in order and are quite easy to describe; other times papers and photographs are thrown into boxes or containers and handed to us with no order whatsoever.

Johnny Ellis papers after arrival to the Archives. The boxes were not in any order with only half having box descriptions.


The Ruth Schmidt papers after arrival to the Archives. The papers were organized and boxes described by Schmidt’s friend and executrix prior to donation.

We like to ask donors if they can give us a short summary of what is in the collection and a biographical note or organizational history of the creator before it arrives—it helps us a lot with the description. But sometimes this doesn’t happen, especially if the collection was donated by a child who just lost their parent, someone who found the collection in a dumpster or an attic, or a colleague or friend.

Any time a collection guide is written it should contain the same core information, regardless of which archivist is the one describing the collection. However, I believe that all archivists approach the description process itself differently—we each have different and unique ways we consider information. I also know that the process I take to describe one collection may not be the same process I use on the next collection. The process I follow can depend on how organized the collection is when it comes to the Archives, how large the collection is, and what description has already been completed.

Describing collections can take a long time or almost no time at all. If the collection contains just one folder with 10 photographs, and if the creator’s biographical note is easy to find or already given to us by the donor, the description may take two hours. However, if there was no biographical information provided, I may need to search for an obituary (if the creator is dead) or piece a biographical note together based on material that’s in the collection. We even use Google to help find information, or the Newsbank database. Sometimes, when no information is available and we have exhausted all other outlets, we put “unavailable at this time.”

With larger collections, the amount of time required to describe the collection can vary to an even greater degree. I recently had a collection that came in where the folders were already in boxes and labeled correctly. The collection was 2 cubic feet and 1.3 GB of material, and it took me three days to describe. I found the organizational history on the organization’s website, and decided to include a box-level listing of collection materials instead of folder-level. Folders were put in the boxes by the donor, who grouped them by subject. Weeding the electronic records to remove employee records and financial statements with digitized checks took me the longest.

On the other end of the spectrum, I described a separate collection that was also 2 cubic feet but only 1.6 MB of electronic records, and this took me a little over a week. Not all the folders were labeled, some of the material had to be re-foldered or foldered, and we were told by the donor ahead of time that the collection contained materials with personally identifiable information, so I had to be on the lookout for that. I also decided to do a box- and folder-level listing of collection materials, as just a box-level listing would be confusing. Even though some of the folders within the boxes were grouped roughly by subject, the folders didn’t necessarily have the same information within, and the years varied greatly.

So, what are the steps I take while describing collections? I can tell you that I don’t typically follow a formal processing plan—though some archivists do and they find that it helps them. I initially approach all collections the same. I thumb through a box or two before I begin the description process, noting if it’s arranged in some kind of order. If there are folders, I pull out a couple to make sure the labels represent what materials are actually in them, even though I will check them all later on. If information regarding the creator is provided I read over that; otherwise I try to find information online—their biography can help provide context to the materials I am about to describe. Only then do I grab a note pad and pencil, open the collection guide template on my computer, take a deep breath, and begin describing with box one, folder one.

Stay tuned for the second part of this blog post where I will discuss my description process for the Johnny Ellis papers.