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Archival Description: The Road Map to your Collection

So, just exactly what is archival description and why would you want to use it for your genealogical collection? In a nutshell, archival description is the process whereby you create a catalogue, finding aid, or access point, that tells you what is in the collection, and most importantly, where to find it. Now, you may be thinking, “but I just finished arranging the collection, of course I know where to find stuff!” It’s not the finding of stuff that is the point here; it’s where the stuff sits within your collection. If we refer back to how archival arrangement works, you will recall that while the fonds is your highest level of arrangement, it is really in creating the different records series where most of your work is going to be done. The more branches you have in your tree, the more records series you are going to have sitting in your collection. If you, and more to the point, whomever inherits the collection after you, wants to find great Aunt Myrtle’s 3rd cousin on her mother’s side, where exactly in the collection will this information be found. Unless you create some sort of access point as to where this 3rd cousin sits within the collection, finding them will be akin to finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Description is also about telling the story of your family and the people who populate your family tree. In archival speak we refer to this as the Biographical Sketch. Each level of arrangement has its accompanying description. At the fonds, or collection level, the biographical sketch would be an overview of the family itself. It’s up to you how much detail you put into it. To give you an idea of how a fonds level description is structured, check out this description of the Shipley Family from the Archive of Ontario’s website. The process is much the same when it comes to describing the different branches in your tree, and indeed, any of the individuals within that branch as well. What stories do great Aunt Myrtle and her 3rd cousin on her mother’s side have to tell? Again, it is completely up to you how much information and the level of detail you want to put into your description.

Remember, the whole point of doing this is twofold: So that anybody can easily find anything within your collection, and, so that the stories of your family, and the people in it, are given a voice.

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