Developing a standard for recording contextual information for archival and manuscript materials
Report of a meeting at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
December 4-6, 1998
On December 4-6, 1998, a group of archivists, archival educators, and information scientists met at Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University. The purpose of this meeting was to discuss the establishment of an international collaborative project to advance the definition and implementation of a methodology for recording information about the contexts in which archival records, personal papers, and similar materials have been created and used. The participants included individuals from Australia, Canada, the European Union Archival Network, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, as well as from the United States. Support for the meeting was provided by the Digital Library Federation and by the Manuscripts and Archives department of the Yale University Library.
Discussion of an archival description methodology based on separate but linked descriptions of archival materials and of the contexts in which they have been created and used dates back to 1985 and the work of Richard Lytle and David Bearman in defining the concept. Since that initial discussion, a number of archivists have built the concept into their practice and systems, but a standard for recording contextual information has not yet emerged in the profession. During the comment period leading up to the adoption of the General International Standard for Archival Description - ISAD(G) - comments by various reviewers noted the absence of ISAD(G) support for this approach. As a result, , the descriptive standards drafting committee subsequently developed the International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons, and Families - ISAAR (CPF). This development recognized the growing acceptance of this methodology by the international archival community.
ISAAR (CPF) provides a framework for the types of information that archivists need to record about organizations, individuals, and families, but does not provide an implementation standard nor an encoding scheme. The further development of contextual information as an integral component of archival description and retrieval requires a data structure standard and format specific to this type of information that will enable archivists to record it consistently within and across repositories. The success of the MARC-AMC format in the U.S. and the Encoded Archival Description document type definition internationally (both of which are primarily formats for description of archival materials) needs to be matched by a similar effort for contextual information.
Following discussions at a meeting of the Society of American Archivists' EAD Working Group, Wendy Duff of the University of Toronto, Daniel Pitti of the University of Virginia, and Richard Szary of Yale University, organized the Yale meeting to determine the prospects for an international collaborative effort to develop this standard. They identified a number of archivists who had implemented contextual information in systems they had developed or who have been active in the discussions of the concept and invited them to a meeting in New Haven. Also invited were information scientists who had been active in studying and developing online retrieval systems for bibliographic materials and vocabulary control. The planned outcome of the meeting was to determine whether there was sufficient interest in the project to pursue support for the effort.
Two preliminary discussion papers defined the concept (then being called archival authority information), identified existing implementations, and proposed the elements of a successful standard and prototype implementation. Participants spent much of the first day reviewing and confirming their shared understanding of the concept and examining existing implementations. While none of the implementations contained the same set of information, structures, or capabilities, there was sufficient similarity in the approaches taken to reinforce the opinion that a common methodology underlay the implementations.
Over the next day and a half, the participants discussed the steps that needed to be taken to provide interested archivists and repositories with a platform from which these approaches could be tested systematically and discussed by the community. The scheduled review of the ISAAR (CPF) standard in 2001 suggested itself to the group as a useful event for directing the pace of the work. In particular, the group felt that a formal submission of its findings on the benefits and consequences of managing contextual information to the ICA body reviewing ISAAR (CPF) would provide an excellent way of ensuring that any suggested developments were subject to full review and approval by a professionally-recognized and international standard-setting authority.
The meeting participants decided that further work was warranted and necessary to identify and promulgate a professional consensus on the structure, elements, and functionality of contextual information within an archival information system. They identified the following projects and actions that needed to be undertaken to advance understanding and consensus and to coordinate work throughout the international archival community: