If you go to the section entitled About Us at our website, you’ll see that the Historical Society of Pennsylvania has over 19 million manuscripts and graphic items. HSP was founded in 1824 and as you can imagine, we have been collecting and acquiring materials on a continued basis since. In order to find all these items when we need them, we have to describe them in detail and make records with that information. The more information we have to describe an item, the greater the chances of researchers or staff finding it.
To describe items in a structured way, we rely on DACS: A Content Standard, a set of rules adopted by the Society of American Archives (SAA) for describing archives, personal papers, and manuscript collections. Taking into consideration standards and rules already adopted by the international archival community, this group of precepts establishes fundamental axioms for every record we create: all records must have an identifying number, all records must have a creator, all records must have a title, date span, extent, declaration of languages, declaration of restrictions of access, etc. The number and nature of precepts depends on the level of description desired: single or multi level, minimum, optimum, or added value. The language used to describe the items is also subject to certain rules, in this case they could be DACS-based, or AACR2, or Library of Congress Authority Files when we must ascertain the correct name for a corporation or we need to disambiguate a person’s name.
Having lots of records created before SAA’s adoption of DACS, here at HSP we decided that our records should be DACS compliant in order to give uniformity to our holdings. For the last couple of months (and continuing through the next year) we have been updating our archival and bibliographic records so they can be as clean and as clear and as informative as possible.
To go about this task, Matthew Lyons (Director of Archives and Collections) and I developed both an Access Table Form to “clean up” each record, and a set of “solutions” to each possible problem (i.e. “If a record has a Collection Number AND a Call Number, make sure it is the number for a no-longer-used artificial collection. Make a note “Collection Number needed” in the Metadata Comments”). Also, in this Metadata Clean-up Form we can register the reasoning behind our decisions, making clear why and according to which set of rules our final determinations were based upon. Sometimes it could seem as if there is no need to be so specific when describing papers but, believe me, there is a difference between Anonymous and Unknown, or the way a computer reads the word and vs. an ampersand.
Updating our records to make them DACS compliant makes our collections more accessible to researchers while establishing part of HSP’s policy on archival description for the future.