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Description (Innovative Practices for Archives and Special Collections
[Series], #1), edited by Kate Theimer, Lanham, MD, Rowman and Littlefield,
2014, 185 pp., £34.95 (soft cover), ISBN 978-0-8108-9093-0 (available from
Description, one of the titles in the Innovative Practices for Archives and
Special Collections series, is a delightful collection of case studies that look at
how to increase the accessibility and discoverability of archives.
As editor Kate Theimer notes in her introduction, one of the concerns of
archival description is at what level should the resources be described: at
collection level, series, folders or individual level of the item? This is only one
of many concerns.
The case studies are varied, and a number of international organisations such
as the National Archives of Australia, the National Archives of Iceland and the
University of Glasgow are included. The North American collections are of
equal interest. Although the content of the individual collections is not the
primary focus of the book, the variety can fascinate, from the Brooklyn
Historical Society to the Islamic Manuscript Collection at the University of
Michigan Library, among others. This reviewer is far more familiar with
metadata for cataloguing than for archives, and a favourite chapter is titled
‘You got your archives in my cataloging’, an exploration of collaboration by
both cataloguing and archive specialists.
Even if the variety of the collections is diverse, the structure of the chapters is
constant, outlining what is being described, who is doing the descriptive work
and how each institution is doing it. Each case study has a Lessons Learned
section preceding the conclusion. These lessons alone make the book a
particularly attractive proposition. Of course, no lesson would make any sense
floating around without context. All of the authors note both the pros and cons
in the lessons, which seem to increase willingness to completely consider
each case. None was unmitigated praise or unrelenting doom.
Of particular interest is the successful use of crowdsourcing by the National
Archives of Australia, especially when compared with the somewhat less
successful crowdsourcing of scholars for the Islamic Manuscript Collection.
A number of cases also tie the discoverability of collections to reference
services, whether a public blog was used to answer reference queries about
the collections or whether unanticipated effects of making the collections more
discoverable meant that queries increased or decreased.
Cases that include project work and vendor affiliations suggest that the
majority of corporate knowledge tied up with the projects could be lost if the
project officers or initial vendors were included only for a set amount of time,
as is the case with a number of contracts now. Description case studies are
written mostly in the first person, which makes reading more like a
conversation with colleagues about projects they have undertaken.
Description is highly recommended for libraries and institutions that have
major library and information subject-based collections. The book is also
recommended for any information professional who wishes to understand
more about archival collections.
Doreen Sullivan
RMIT University