FamilyHistory with Part 2 of 4: Preparing Your Family History Documents for Digitization

Tia Stenson

June 16, 2021

Describing Your Documents the Archivist Way

I hope you enjoyed the first blog in this series, because we are now moving to the next step of your digitizing journey. 

So how do we know, or remember, what we have? We write it down. It is important not only to preserve the materials but also the who, what, where, when, and why of our collections. As we all know, we won’t be here forever, but these collections might be. We have to write down the collection’s story, so our grandchildren, great-grandchildren, or researchers can understand the collection. 

If you have visited an archive to do research, you were probably given a finding aid for a collection to identify the materials you wanted to study. A finding aid is like the back cover summary and table of contents in a book, it gives you an idea of what the collection is about. This is how archivists describe the physical items and their stories. Archivists use a standard called Describing Archives: A Content Standard or DACS so that all finding aids have similarities to them. Read on if you want to look deeper into these archival concepts. 

Levels of Description: 

Every archive might describe their collections at different levels. This is because some collections are so big that archivists cannot always describe every item right away. An archivist may decide to describe the collection broadly in order to make the collection accessible to its patrons sooner. For example, in my last blog, I introduced you to one of the collections I am working on: the Richard Thum Papers, which is now taking up six plastic file totes!

A look at my family history collections. The bottom two boxes on the left, and the four boxes on the right are all part of the Richard Thum Collection. There is still one more box of items to go through! 

The first and highest level of description is the collection level. This includes things such as who made the collection, as well as additional or biographical information about them, when the collection was created, where the collection is, a summary of the contents of the entire collection, and how to access the collection. From there, you can start adding more and more detailed levels of description. If your collection has various series as described in the last post, you might include some of the same descriptive categories as the main collection. Most often, archives describe their collections down to the folder level. This can include the descriptive categories mentioned previously, plus a list of folder titles and where the folder is located (such as the box it is in). You can also describe collections at the item level, which is not common for archives to do unless they are digitizing their collections and putting them online. 

CollectionRichard Thum Papers 
SeriesEducation Papers
FolderBarbara Thum North Dakota High School Completion Certificate, 1950-1953
Document (Item)Modern World History Completion Certificate, 1952-05
SeriesBank Records
Sub-SeriesAmerican National Bank
FolderAmerican National Bank, Account Verification for Alfred Thum Jr, 1970
Sub-SeriesFirst State Bank of Hope
FolderFirst State Bank of Hope Correspondence, 1961
Levels of Description

The Elements of Description: 

For archivists, there are 25 DACS elements used to describe the various levels of collections, we will discuss only a few that would help you describe your own collections.

Identity Elements

These elements are where we identify what is in a collection. A Reference Code provides a unique identifier for the collection or item. For example, I use a letter and number code. For the Richard Thum Collection its RT001. RT for Richard Thum, and then there is 001, which for me states this is the paper/document part of the collection. 

Name and Location of Repository simply shows who is in custody of the collection and where they are located. I dub myself the Tia Stenson Family History Archive, and my collections live in either Moorhead or South Dakota. A Title describes what the collection or item is. Extent describes the size of the collection, such as how many boxes and folders are in the collection. Name of the Creator(s) which means whose stuff was it? Is it yours, your parents, grandparents, or others? You can  put their name on it, so later you know who these items represent. Administrative/Biographical History is where you can write brief histories of the creators or the company the collection represents. If the creator is deceased, I like to use parts of their obituary since it’s a good mini-biography of their life.

Example of how to use and where to place the Identity Elements. 

Content and Structure Elements:

These elements represent what is in the collection and how it is arranged. Scope and Content describe what is in the collection by providing a summary of the types of documents in the collection or series. If there is anything unique or special, you can highlight it here. You can use Scope and Contents at any level of description. System of Arrangement is where you describe how you organized your collections in written words. Do you have any series? What order are they in? Did you organize folders by date or alphabetically? Did you do something unique and special for your organization? Write it all down here. This is also where you make the list of folders you have. This can be used at any level of description. 

Examples of the Content and Structure Elements

Conditions of Access and Use:

These elements describe how someone else can access your collections for research. We will only go through a few of these that may be important to you. Conditions Governing Access state that you have restricted files (make sure you label those folders/files). Are those files only restricted to specific people? Will there be a time when they will be available (like upon your death)? These might be documents with sensitive information about your identity, or just information you want to remain private but still want to save. This can be used at any level of description. Technical Access, describe any special requirements to access digital items. For myself, I like to state where digital surrogates for my collections are, like! You can put a link to your collections here. This can be used at any level of description. Conditions Governing Reproduction and Use describe what, if any, materials are copyrighted. Do you want to allow others to make copies of your materials? State here if and how people can make copies. This is typically only used at the Collection level description. Languages and Scripts of the Material explain what languages are represented in your collection. 

Example of the Conditions of Access and Use Elements

Acquisition and Appraisal Elements. 

These represent the story of how you received the collection. The only one that is of importance to a family history collection is the Custodial History. Here is where you write the story of how you came into possession of the collection and who owned it before you.

Example of the Acquisition and Appraisal Elements. 

Access Points:

The final piece of description you may want to add are additional access points or subjects or tags. Access points are elements that are used in databases to help retrieve relevant information so that your collection will be findable and usable. Subjects or tags are simple, consistent phrases that describe the who, what, when, and where of a collection. Archivists use tools like the Library of Congress Authorities and various vocabularies from the Getty Research Institute to create consistent subjects. Sometimes it’s also important to make your own collection of terms, especially for local or specialized collections. It’s  important to be consistent with your access points because the more uniform the tag, the easier it will be to find that information and other related records. On you can search using their tagging system!

Example of Access Points, subjects, or tags. 

These are just some tools and information to describe your newly organized collections. Go off and make sure your knowledge about the collections is preserved as much as the collection themselves. Using any number of these tools could benefit your personal archive. Providing some basic information about a collection will go a long way to ensuring people know what it is years down the road

For a template of a finding aid: 

You can go to my archive to find examples of finding aids: 

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