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Revised Preface and Principles #20
SAA's Technical Subcommittee on Describing Archives: A Content Standard (TS-DACS) welcomes your comments on a proposal to revise the Preface and the Statement of Principles in DACS. This proposal comes from TS-DACS and responds to preliminary community feedback in 2017-2018. It includes work undertaken by an experts group1 convened at SAA’s annual meetings in 2016-2017 and the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington, Connecticut in March 2017.
Chapters to change
This proposal aims to update the Preface and the Statement of Principles in order to better align both with current archival theory and practice as well as the International Council on Archives (ICA) draft data model for archival description, Records in Contexts (RiC).2 The preface revision is not hugely substantive but rather a reorganization and update of existing information. The revision to the Statement of Principles is total.
Justification for proposed change
There are two primary and equally important justifications for the revisions. First, the revision is proposed following a deep analysis of the current Statement of Principles (hereafter referred to as current principles) and the extent to which it represents archival values, theory and practice, and is teachable and clear. Second is the release of Records in Contexts and the desire by the technical subcommittee to bring DACS in better alignment with its underlying concepts and structure and, in turn, current archival theory that undergirds RiC.
Analysis of the current principles
Leading up to the August 2016 annual meeting of SAA in Atlanta, members of TS-DACS analyzed the current principles, asking if they were they clear, teachable, and reflective of current archival values, theory, and practice. In addition to the technical subcommittee, a group of experts on archival description was called upon to read the principles closely and comment on their clarity, usability, and relevance.
Through this analysis, TS-DACS and the experts group found the principles confusing and difficult to teach. They also discovered that many ideas well-represented in literature on archives and archival description - providing maximum access to records, prioritizing users and use of records over preservation, building relationships with creators, using accessible language to document traditionally underrepresented communities, and documenting archival interventions and the role of archivists in shaping the historical record - were not present in the existing principles. The analysis indicated that the archival profession has an opportunity to refocus archival description on its ultimate purpose -- enabling users of archives to make sense of the past through records.
A full accounting of the written documentation and analysis of the current principles at the SAA annual meeting in Atlanta in 2016 can be found here.
Changing conceptual models for archival description
Shortly following, in September 2016, ICA’s Expert’s Group on Archival Description (EGAD) released the first version of a data model for archival description, Records in Contexts (RiC). The model attempts to account for complexity in records and record creation by allowing for a network of linked entities and relationships to represent archival description. This network representation goes beyond the widespread understanding and implementation of archival description as simple hierarchy.3 The thinking underlying RiC expands understandings of the core archival concept of provenance and empowers archivists to document the complexity of record creation over time.
Creating revised principles
To address the limitations of the existing principles, TS-DACS led an effort to comprehensively revise them, convening a group of experts on archival description from a variety of institutional contexts for an in-person meeting.4 This process resulted in 11 principles which reframed the existing 8 principles, combining related concepts, adding missing ideas, and in some cases removing obsolete or unnecessary principles.
Call for comments and community feedback
TS-DACS put out a general call for comments on the revised principles in June 2017 and also reached out directly to leading thinkers, practitioners, and educators of archival description. All received feedback and commentary on feedback can be accessed here.
Analyzing feedback from 51 individuals and groups on 11 different principles proved challenging. The subcommittee created a series of worksheets to review the feedback for each principle as well as three broader, thematic categories: the role of descriptive principles, comparison of old to new principles, and the revision process itself. The worksheets synthesized community feedback into areas of agreement, disagreement, and misunderstanding and provided suggestions on how to address these concerns.
To answer general questions and clarify areas of clumsy communication, TS-DACS made minor revisions to the principles themselves.5
A major theme throughout the feedback centered around matters of degree in descriptive practice: how many archival interventions should be documented and are certain activities more important to document than others? Community members wanted concrete guidance on when or why to add to a description and whether it was a matter of choice or rule. Archival description has always had to contend with these questions of degree, which is one of the reasons why local implementation and procedure manuals continue to be critical for repository compliance and consistency of practice. To address these concerns, TS-DACS further explicated the role of principles versus the role of rules versus archival assessment and judgement in the preface to DACS.
Similarly, the introduction of concepts such as bias, archival intervention, iteration, and transparency into the principles raised questions about what is required and what is enough. To these concerns, TS-DACS wants to reiterate and further highlight the set of required elements for single level description that DACS already provides,6 which should continue to form the basis of archival description, whether it is an accession record, a collection level catalog record, a finding aid, a record for a digitized resource, or any other format.
Numerous respondents were excited to see the central place of users in the principles. One person noted that Principle 2 was “just essential.” However, there was concern around a perceived narrowness of definition with both use and user, as some misunderstood “users are the fundamental reason for archives” to mean only external researchers. In the principles, the terms use and user are employed broadly. Each repository should explore and define the terms its own way. Depending on the context, use may be government accountability, genealogy, artistic endeavors, or historical research, among many others. A corporate archives will have a different set of users and uses for its records than a state government. Rather than provide a strict definition, TS-DACS added a statement on user-centered archival description in the preamble to the principles.
Many respondents read the revised principles as aspirational rather than prescriptive. One respondent suggested that the revised principles are the what and the why of archival description, while the rules are the how. Overall, this shift away from the current principles as methodology to the revised principles as advocacy was understood as a positive one. Because they are value-driven, the revised principles represent where the community of archivists using DACS currently are and, more importantly, where they want to be.
As the chart above highlights, nearly all of the current principles were consolidated into revised Principle 4, which affirms that records often have multiple contexts of provenance, creation, maintenance and use. Much of the feedback focused on the concepts raised therein. Respondents to revised Principle 4 articulated that "the four fundamental concepts" provide an intellectually inclusive means for addressing basic ideas. They felt the assertion that archivists "reveal" and "expose" provides clarity, while the focus on creators and relationships, rather than hierarchy, was appreciated. One participant noted that this principle is the most useful statement she has ever seen to explain how archival description differs from bibliographic description.
The main criticism of the principle was the absence of the terms “provenance” or “original order.” As one respondent wrote:
Other comments requested guidance and examples about how to identify aggregates and implement other aspects of the principle.
In response to this feedback, a discussion of provenance, original order, and guidance in determining aggregate groupings was added to the preamble to the principles. More detail and practical guidance will be provided in the upcoming revisions of the rules to implement the new principles.
While some of the feedback was critical (which in return resulted in a stronger revision of the principles), there was widespread support for the revised principles. TS-DACS found that the community was ready for the revised principles as presented8 and have already had four requests for citation in publishing. By adding a preamble to the principles to provide context, TS-DACS is ready to put forth a second version of the principles.
Impact of proposed change
The impact of the changes to the Preface and the principles will, in the future, cascade throughout parts I and II of DACS. In order to bring description into better alignment with these new principles, TS-DACS foresees some existing elements currently designated as Optimum or Added Value becoming required. In particular, it is likely that elements supporting Principles 5 and 6 - the imperative that archivists document their interventions as part of archival description - will be elevated to required status.
In addition, new rules may need to be introduced to DACS to support the revised principles. Proposed element 8.2,9 which requires a rights declaration for archival description, supports ideas in new Principle 8 which encourages archivists to make description machine-readable, machine-actionable, and easily disseminated.
It is expected that many, if not most, repositories will not be fully compliant with all of the principles at the time of their adoption. Many repositories, particularly small ones, are only now trying to meet existing standards, and may feel that the new principles present an even higher hurdle. These issues need not be a deterrent to the adoption of the new principles. A repository's descriptive policies and practices, like archival description itself, are developed iteratively. They are revisited and refined over time for many reasons: to meet changing needs of users, to adapt to staff and resource constraints, to utilize new technology, and to incorporate the evolving understanding of our profession. The principles can serve a powerful role in guiding changes to policy and practice by articulating the goals of and reasons for archival description.
TS-DACS recognizes that changes from version to version of DACS have the potential to require an outlay of time and resources that may not be immediately available to all repositories. Beginning in 2018, DACS will be available under versioned releases; repositories may declare themselves compliant with a particular version of DACS as they work toward implementing the latest changes.
The flawed pursuit of perfectly described collections has contributed substantially to processing and description backlogs. Rather than adding to that burden, these principles empower archivists, whether they are managers and resource allocators or collection processors, to use their professional skills and judgment to make a greater volume of records more accessible for research. The principles and DACS as whole give structure for meeting attainable baseline requirements for descriptive records and then encouraging archivists to best decide how to spend their own time. For example, the new principles are very explicit that all holdings in the repository must have an archival description (Principle 9). This means that if the community (and council) decides to adopt these new principles, many repositories will have the opportunity to examine their own compliance with our national descriptive standard.
While implementation strategies are beyond the scope of DACS, many such strategies aligned with the principles have emerged since the original publication of DACS. These strategies, including description at the time of acquisition, iterative processing approaches, and collection assessment, reappraisal and deaccessioning are discussed in archival literature. We believe that these principles are achievable and that very good advice already exists for archivists striving to meet them.10
By emphasizing the importance of describing all collections and transparency, the new principles facilitate resource advocacy, whether for professional archivists to create collection level description for all holdings or for changes within repositories towards more accessible forms of description.
We encourage repositories to consider the following strategies:
By using the principles to guide incremental change, the repository knows that individual efforts will bring the repository closer into alignment with the wisdom of the profession.
We believe that these new principles make education around archival description clearer and easier to teach. Above all, we hope that the revised principles allow for more accessible and transparent archival description for users and uses of records.
How to submit feedback
There are two possible channels for proposing feedback.
Option 1 (preferred)
If you have a GitHub account, you can comment on the proposed change here: #20. If you do not yet have a GitHub account, it is easy to create one.
We prefer this method because it is more transparent (comments are available to the world) and because it helps maintain the history of conversations around DACS changes.
Option 2 (also very welcome!)
Submit your comments to the SAA website, here: http://www2.archivists.org/standards/DACS/revisions.
These comments will be forwarded to TS-DACS, but will not be immediately viewable by other SAA members. This method does not provide the same opportunity to engage in conversation about a change proposal as commenting in GitHub.
We will accept comments until August 31, 2018.
Information about the DACS change proposal and review process is available here: https://github.com/saa-ts-dacs/dacs#revision-process
: Current and former TS-DACS Members: Maureen Callahan, Elise Dunham, Maristella Feustle, Matthew Gorham, Adriane Hanson, Adrien Hilton, Sue Luftschein, Dan Michelson, Kate Morris, Elena Perez-Lizano, Cassie Schmitt, Carrie Hintz (ex officio), Weatherly Stephan (ex officio); Principle revision participants: Hillel Arnold, Mary Caldera, Jillian Cuellar, Tamar Dougherty, Jarret Drake, Gretchen Gueguen, Regine Heberlein, Linda Hocking, Bill Landis, Dennis Meissner, Trevor Owens, Mario Ramirez, Daniel Santamaria, Audra Eagle Yun
: Records in Contexts: A Conceptual Model for Archival Description (International Council on Archives, September 2016), Consultation Draft v0.1, https://www.ica.org/sites/default/files/RiC-CM-0.1.pdf.
: Records in Contexts, 9.
: For perspectives on the meeting see Hillel Arnold: http://blog.rockarch.org/?p=1710 and a report submitted to Society of American Archivists Council: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1aOV7IgH5WqVl-tXUswCJkZAML_A8SKjTZOB4_wGz35w/edit?usp=sharing.
: For instance, the SAA statement of ethics as well as industry adjacent statements were added as links to Principle 1; events was changed to activities in Principle 4 to better reflect current terminology; and the claim that archivists’ primary intellectual output is description was deleted in Principle 8.
: DACS element sets are described in Chapter 1. https://github.com/saa-ts-dacs/dacs/blob/master/part_I/chapter_1.md
: Feedback on Revised Principles, June 2017.
: Of the 51 respondents to an online feedback form, 29 were submitted by individuals, 22 were submitted by a group. The average ranking by all respondents in response to the statement, “I / we support this new set of DACS principles and would like to see them adopted as part of DACS” on a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the greatest support, was 7.1. On average the group rankings were higher than that of the individuals, 7.5 versus 6.8. Without knowing the number of participants in each group we can’t say for certain how many individuals this represents, but it points to an even greater number of respondents agreeing with the revised principles.
: See Daniel A. Santamaria, Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections (Chicago: American Library Association, 2015); Christine Weideman, “Accessioning as Processing,” The American Archivist, 69, No. 2 (Fall/Winter 2006): 274-283; University of California Systemwide Libraries, “Guidelines for Efficient Archival Processing in the University of California Libraries (Version 3.2),” 2012, https://escholarship.org/uc/item/1sw157j3; Harvard University Special Collections and Archives, “Joint Processing Guidelines,” https://projects.iq.harvard.edu/jointprocessingguidelines; Society of American Archivists, “Guidelines for Reappraisal and Deaccessioning,” 2017, https://www2.archivists.org/sites/all/files/GuidelinesForReappraisalDeaccessioning_2017.pdf.
When I started doing archives classes with undergrads I revisited the DACS principles and they seemed pedantic, off-putting, even embarrassing! I had a hard time following them and I'm a professional archivist. In contrast, the new DACS principles are something I can get behind. They express my values and my approach to managing and processing archives- making strategic, user-centered decisions and documenting those decisions as transparently as possible. I think the emphasis on intellectual context and connections between records, creators, and subjects (as opposed to emphasizing levels and heirarachy) is also valuable and the field will only be moving further in this direction in the future.
I think these revisions are a substantial improvement to DACS and I’ve already found that they help me be mindful of the wider implications of my work. I particularly favor the prominent role of users in the principles, and that they not only center archival practice upon use (Principle 2), but actionably connect that value to basic practices (Principle 10). I also find the focus on re-use (principle 8) to be useful for
I think it’s challenging to fully understand and appreciate the value of archival description without hands-on experience working with large volumes of collections. I find that these revised DACS principles are among the best tools to convey this value to students, new professionals, and those in related professions. I’ve already referenced them and found them helpful in communicating the value of archival practices to the web archives community. I also try to encourage the graduate students I work with to read and engage with these principles and I’ve found them to be a much better medium for thoughtfully considering the implications of what we’re doing than any one journal article.
I strongly support the updated DACS principles.
In particular I appreciate principles 8 and 9. Principle 8 articulates clearly the way in which how we share description is nearly as important as what description we share. This a crucial idea for archivists to understand and take to heart if we are to maximize the potential use of our descriptive work.
Principle 9 - that "each collection within a repository must have an archival description" - pushes archivists to contextualize archival description not simply within the needs of a given collection, but across all of the holdings of a repository. I think of this as the appraisal of descriptive needs and resources - if we start with making sure everything has some description, then we can assess how much additional description we can afford to do. It is simply untenable to make descriptive decisions solely within the context of what a single collection might need, so this principle is a vital improvement.
My sincere thanks to TS-DACS and all of the thoughtful archivists who contributed to this work.
I would like to thank TS-DACS for all the work that they did on these principles. I support the revisions, and am especially excited to see users centered in the revised principles. Principles 2, 7, 10, and 11 are especially exciting to see. Centering users is something that archivists as a whole can continually improve upon. One thought I have is that there may be times when user needs and priorities and archival principles aren't in alignment. I'd eventually like to see DACS address this issue. For example, centering of user needs should lead to a review of the descriptive rules in DACS with an eye to user needs. Another issue is that, currently, we don't know a lot about our users. As the profession builds knowledge in this area, I'd like to see DACS be nimble in adjusting to what is learned about how users actually find and use archival materials. Thanks again to all the members of TS-DACS.
I support the updated principles, and want to thank the members of TS-DACS for their efforts on this project and the work required for standards maintenance more generally. I think this revision does much to highlight the value of labor archivists perform. The new principles shift away from the nature of records themselves, basic definitions about archives, and foundational concepts about archival theory more generally -- all of which can be found in complementary resources -- toward guidance that is grounded in values and tightly focused on archival description proper. I think this is a good thing. Although the standard will require local policy and implementation decisions, as noted in the Preface, I find these updated principles to be more easily understandable and useful to archives practitioners with varied levels of experience. To be a more inclusive profession, we should strive to make our standards and best practices as accessible as possible.
A comment that you can take or leave: since the new principles are heavily values driven and repeatedly emphasize the importance of content, I would like to see some statement regarding the function of archival description in a larger records continuum context. I don't think this needs to be a principle unto itself, but could be a useful addition to the Preface. For example, Principle 1 states, "Archival description expresses professional ethics and values." The roles and responsibilities of donors and records creators are conspicuously absent; ethical description should, in my opinion, also take into consideration the persons being described, rather than solely based on the ethics of the American archival profession. And while ethical description can play a role in “encourage[ing] a diverse archival record,” that cannot exist without concerted acquisition, appraisal, and internal management and prioritization. Even the most principled archival description cannot promote a diverse record in an institution that primarily collects the papers of the privileged or prioritizes those collections for arrangement and description. A general statement regarding archival description in the larger context of archival work could address this concern.
That being said, I think that these principles share much in common with what archival description should be: accessible, iterative, and focused on the users. Thank you again!
I support the revised principles. They are direct and concise, which will help students, new professionals, and members of related professions understand how the work of archival description is guided. The addition of several principles--but especially 5, 6, and 10--provides strong guidance for setting descriptive policies and priorities, and for the application of DACS rules when describing records.
I strongly support the revised principles.
They promote a user-centered, iterative, values-forward approach to archival description that reflects the best of current archival practice. I appreciate that the combination of Principles 1, 7, 10, and 11 supports a reparative approach to (re)processing that seeks to address the erasure or mis-description of materials related to people from traditionally marginalized groups in the archives. I'm also particularly in support of Principle 6 and its focus on transparency. In the upcoming revisions of the DACS rules, I hope to see additional guidance on specific information and actions to document.
Many thanks to TS-DACS for your thoughtful work on updating these principles.
I support the updated principles.
The guidance they will provide for repositories and for those who do this work is clear, useful, and will be of great value. I appreciate the thought and work put into the revision. The inclusion of transparency and accessibility, as set forth in principles 6 and 7, is particularly good to see.
I support the revised principles.
I agree with the comments that applaud the user-centered language in the revised principles. In particular, I appreciate that principles 5 and 6 encourage archivists to document who we are, what we did, and when we did it. This information is not only critical to our external users, but to our colleagues who will be stewarding these collections in the future. I also appreciate that the standard itself will be versioned, as this will facilitate our ability to iteratively describe the materials in our care in a documented way.
Kudos to TS-DACS for leading this revision process in a thoughtful and transparent manner.
Following the comments of many others I applaud the work that TS-DACS has undertaken to revise the preface and principles and generally support the revisions. What follows are some general comments regarding each section.
Thanks for your work!
Thank you to the TS-DACS committee for your work drafting these much-needed revisions. Thank you for your time, your thoughtfulness in thinking through complex topics and issues, and your efforts to engage with the archival community. I strongly support the revised principles as they currently stand.
To reiterate what others I have stated, I am particularly pleased that the updated principles articulate values that the profession is striving to adhere to and implement; and that they address issues relating to users, archival intervention, transparency, and the problematic principles of provenance (in particular) and original order. I also look forward to seeing how these updated principles are applied to the revised rules.
I agree with @alexisantracoli that centering archival description around the needs of users necessitates that archivists make more of an effort to know who their users are and identify their needs. Perhaps this point warrants further articulation and recommendations.
I am writing to voice support for the updated principles. There are many specific aspects that I appreciated about the changes, but on a macro level, I would say that I appreciate how much they focus on people. The old principles focused more on products of human activity: records and description. The new ones focus more on how people and how they engage with records and description, whether the people in question are records creators, archivists, or researchers/users. They definitely add a "why" to DACS' "how", and hopefully will help encourage thoughtfulness about creating description that is more user-centric and more richly provides context around provenance and human interventions in records (including archivist interventions). Thank you.
The focus on users is a strength of the revised principles. I appreciate the acknowledgement throughout the principles that repositories make decisions based on their resources and particular user needs. (9,10) I support the principles' emphasis on transparency related to archivists' own actions/interventions on records.