EAD Application Guidelines for Version 1.0

Chapter 3. Creating Finding Aids in EAD

3.1. Introduction

Although EAD is a new descriptive development emerging from the information technology of the late twentieth century, its structure, and hence archivists' ability to use EAD, rests squarely on time-honored principles of archival arrangement and description. Much of the information considered essential for creating a good EAD finding aid is data that archivists have routinely created during the process of acquiring, organizing, and describing materials. This chapter seeks to demonstrate that much about EAD is familiar ground for archivists. It is hoped that it will reveal to readers what many archivists have discovered after taking an EAD training workshop, namely that mastering EAD's intellectual framework and tagging structure is a relatively straightforward process.

Nevertheless, some of the terms, descriptive practices, and encoding concepts found herein are likely to be new to many readers, and you may find it helpful to read through the entire chapter once for a general understanding of EAD's structure, and then a second time to master some of the finer points of specific elements. Although for the most part these Guidelines separate the discussion of implementation issues and technical matters from the explanation of the DTD's structure and choice of elements, some overlap is unavoidable. At each point in chapter 3 where a technical term or implementation issue is relevant to the discussion of an element or group of elements, a very brief explanation is given on the spot, and a cross reference leads you to a more substantial discussion of the topic elsewhere in the Guidelines.

The next three sections of this chapter comprise an orientation to EAD within the context of archival description:

Section 3.5, the core of the chapter, provides a step-by-step description of the process of creating an EAD finding aid, focusing on the relationship between the parts of a finding aid that most archivists find familiar and their corresponding elements and attributes in EAD. When various encoding approaches are possible, the pros and cons of each are discussed. It is suggested that you also refer to the corresponding element descriptions and examples in the EAD Tag Library as you read this section.

Finally, section 3.6 explains how to include metadata or bibliographic information about the finding aid itself, which is essential for publishing your finding aids on the Web.

Until you are comfortable with the EAD structure and tag set, you may want to refer back to this chapter while encoding your finding aids. The chapter's section structure will assist you in locating the information you need. It may also be useful to refer to appendix A, Minimum Recommended Finding Aid Elements, to correlate the use of particular EAD elements with good descriptive practice.

3.2. Collecting Data for a Finding Aid

Creating a finding aid is a descriptive process that may begin before a collection ever arrives in your repository.(46) If, for example, you are a manuscript curator or archivist for a collecting repository, you will likely gather crucial data about the origins, provenance, and chain of custody of a collection during the course of identifying the materials for possible acquisition. You may meet with the creator and/or donor of the records or papers, learn something about the context in which the materials were generated, and glean from background reading, conversation, and examination, bits and pieces of information about the organization, scope, and content of the materials under consideration. A memorandum summarizing your findings may be prepared, filed away, and possibly forgotten about until months or years later when the materials arrive on your doorstep through donation, deposit, purchase, or transfer. At that time, you may pull out this memorandum and compare it to the materials before you. You will likely also review packing lists and legal documents, such as the deed of gift or purchase agreement. Through this discovery process, you will begin to piece together a rudimentary accession record or preliminary catalog record containing some of the basic content of a future EAD finding aid:

The more information that can be captured at this stage the better, especially if the facts are based on oral sources and are unrecorded elsewhere. This initial collection-level description may be viewed by the archivist more as inventory control than an access tool, but gathering and recording the information is an investment in archival description that will reap significant rewards when the data is teased apart and easily mapped to counterpart EAD data categories. From these earliest acquisition and accessioning records, a finding aid author can begin to extract a fundamental description of the collection in its entirety (what we later refer to in section section as the "high-level <did>") and start to outline important background information about how the collection was acquired and the conditions under which it is administered by the repository and used by researchers. This latter "administrative information" (explored further in section will help future finding aid readers know how to approach the collection and make use of the data they find.

At the outset of processing the collection, additional information suitable for inclusion in an EAD finding aid is assembled. In an effort to educate yourself about the materials, you may track down biographies, agency histories, or corporate chronologies about the creator. You may prepare a crib sheet to refer to during processing that identifies the key dates and events in a person's or organization's life. As suggested in section, this processing aid can become a public reference tool when included in an EAD finding aid as a biographical note or agency history designed to enhance researchers' understanding of the origins and context of the archival materials. Also easily accommodated in EAD are bibliographies, such as the list of sources you may have prepared during your background research, and other types of "adjunct descriptive data" described in section 3.5.4.

Background reading and consultation of external sources continues throughout processing, but the next stage of organizing and describing a collection involves studying its existing order and structure to identify its majors parts and deduce how those parts have been or could be divided into smaller components. Once the organization has been determined, the focus shifts to issues of arrangement, which relate to how the materials are filed (alphabetical, chronological, etc.) within the higher-level components. During the analysis of the collection, you will likely record information about its current organization and arrangement and may incorporate such information into a processing proposal, which outlines how the various parts will be prepared for research use. In delineating both the original and projected structure of the collection, the processing proposal lays the groundwork for building a multilevel EAD finding aid, which, as described in section 3.4, provides a summary description of the whole collection, followed by progressively more detailed descriptions of the parts.

As you work your way through the collection, you begin to build a description of its components. This accomplishes two key purposes: to reflect the components' relationship to the whole and to one another, and to assign to each component key pieces of information such as a title, date, physical location, quantity, and others. Section 3.4 discusses this whole-to-part relationship, while section 3.5.2 explores how the component descriptions are incorporated into an EAD finding aid.

At the same time that you are creating your component descriptions, you are also perhaps recording the major themes and topics covered in the collection, identifying the types of materials represented, listing people and organizations of interest, and noting the existence of alternative finding aids and access tools. All of these are important pieces of description that have clearly defined places in the EAD structure, as illustrated in later sections of this chapter.

As you read through these subsequent sections, you are likely to recognize that EAD incorporates much of what you currently do in the area of archival arrangement and description. Please note, however, that EAD is more than a structure for accommodating current descriptive practices; it has the potential to improve those practices. EAD already has begun to force archivists to think more critically about our descriptive practices and to encourage us to bring local, national, and international practices into a more rigorously conceived framework. Furthermore, EAD paves the way for finding aids to become more dynamic in an online environment and offers possibilities for building multirepository union databases of finding aids, conducting searches across multiple finding aids and repositories using one or more elements contained in EAD, and manipulating individual finding aids in new ways as we become more aware of how our researchers approach and use these tools.

3.3. Evaluating Descriptive Practices

EAD is a complex structure that, if fully utilized, presents your repository with opportunities to compile, search, retrieve, and otherwise customize your finding aids in an infinite number of ways-many of which might be quite nontraditional, and some of which are as yet unforeseeable. The potential for doing this derives almost entirely from consistent and extensive encoding of the intellectual content within the finding aids. By using EAD's intellectual content tags judiciously, one can create a highly flexible finding aid that can function both as the kind of linear document that we are accustomed to creating and as a structured, searchable database.

3.3.1. Analyze Existing Finding Aid Structure

In their eagerness to exploit this new technology, some repositories may leap into converting their old finding aids or creating new ones with little regard as to whether their existing access tools provide "good" or complete descriptions of the archival materials, or whether they provide the appropriate contextual information needed by researchers to understand the materials. Because of the need to secure funding and build staff expertise in EAD, these repositories may decide to tag existing finding aids "as is," with the intent of returning later to clean them up. Realistically, however, it is unlikely that such cleanup will actually take place. Nonstandardized finding aids will reproduce local idiosyncrasies online, where they will be encountered by inexperienced archival researchers who do not have an archivist nearby to help them interpret the information. Because EAD enables you to incorporate individual finding aids into conglomerate databases of multiple finding aids, inconsistencies in content or structure across finding aids may result in union databases that will be difficult to search or manipulate.

It is therefore essential that encoded finding aids be clear and intelligible to remote users who will encounter them online. If they are not clear, then you have gained nothing by encoding and disseminating your finding aids in this fashion and may actually discourage some users. Before attempting to embark on an EAD project, it is recommended that you consider the various issues raised in chapter 2 and appendix D and conduct a careful analysis of existing finding aid practices. In terms of the latter, look at each individual piece of information and how it is currently structured in your finding aids. You should then determine if this information belongs in more than one EAD data element, in which case it may be best to divide the data appropriately among elements to ensure the long-term usefulness of the information. Also be sure to ask yourself what function a piece of information serves in the finding aid and whether it would be intelligible if presented to a user in an online environment where an archivist is unavailable to elucidate its meaning. If the information included in an existing finding aid is not sufficiently self-explanatory or helpful, then it should either be revised before inclusion, or it should be eliminated.

It is equally important to consider the completeness of your finding aids. Oftentimes a repository has only a container list for a collection, which may be adequate as a retrieval tool within the confines of the institution, but which may be utterly useless to a researcher in an online environment due to lack of contextual information, such as a biographical sketch or agency history and a summary of the contents. Though it will take time to add this critical, even if brief, information to the encoded finding aid, untold benefits will accrue to the repository and to researchers. We need to reevaluate our assumptions about users' understanding of the information being presented in our finding aids. Even such seemingly insignificant aspects as headings for the various sections of a finding aid should be reviewed in a new light.

3.3.2. Structure EAD Documents Consistently

If EAD is to achieve its full potential, archivists must begin to implement "best practices" when describing archival materials. This means that we should use national and international data structure and data content standards to supplement the guidance given in these Guidelines and in the EAD Tag Library. One such data structure standard is ISAD(G),(47) which (as explained in section 1.1 and section 3.4) offers international guidelines for creating multilevel descriptions of archival materials similar to those found in EAD finding aids. ISAD(G) consists of two major segments: (1) a segment that identifies the essential data elements or information buckets that should be used to describe an entire archival unit or one of its components; and (2) a segment that provides rules for showing the hierarchical relationship between the whole and its parts. ISAD(G) is not as specific as EAD with respect to finding aid data, but it offers a useful model for determining both essential elements and the amount of descriptive detail an archivist may wish to gather at each hierarchical level.

In addition to consulting national and international standards, be consistent locally in how you create finding aids, for example, by requiring certain key elements to be completed for every finding aid or standardizing the way in which component descriptions are created. EAD does not, for the most part, require that elements be presented in a given order, but it does support a logical progression of information, as outlined in subsequent sections of this chapter. As in MARC, only a handful of elements are required to produce a valid EAD document.(48) Employing only the required EAD elements does not mean, however, that the MARC record or the encoded finding aid is a good or even adequate representation of the collection. It is perfectly possible to have a valid EAD-encoded document that contains nothing but empty elements;(49) the SGML authoring software can detect only that the required elements are present and that certain elements are in the correct order. There are no MARC police, as the saying goes, and there won't be any EAD police either. Each repository must be responsible for ensuring that key elements are included in every finding aid and that the elements are used as intended.

Careful reading of these Guidelines and the EAD Tag Library should help encourage responsible and effective use of the EAD element set. Both documents are intended to foster community-wide discussion and usage by providing a sound explanation of the EAD structure, identifying key options permitted by the DTD, and theorizing on potential costs and benefits of various approaches. It would be premature at this stage of EAD's development to dictate a uniform sequence of elements across repositories or to recommend a particular degree or depth of encoding. Additional analysis of how markup affects display and retrieval must be done, and greater input and feedback from the user community should be gathered. The important things for now are to make certain that you are including those elements about which the community has achieved some consensus (as recommended by these Guidelines and by relevant external standards), that you are using elements and attributes in accordance with the DTD, and that the data included in within each element matches the element's definition.

Appendix A and subsequent sections of these Guidelines identify a core set of about 30 elements considered necessary to construct a minimum useful and logical description of a collection. While including these elements does not guarantee the quality of the information entered into each, it does at least ensure that the most important intellectual pieces of a finding aid are available to users. While all finding aids should incorporate at least the EAD elements given in appendix A, you always have the option of including more elements and may at any point revise a finding aid to add more information.

3.3.3. Use Content Standards and Authority Files

It is important to note that while EAD provides a standardized structure for information about finding aids and the collections they describe, it does not, in its present form, mandate the use of any standards for how the content of each data element is determined and entered, in other words, through the use of standard authority files. The optimal way to ensure consistency in the content of EAD elements is to use existing content standards that are relevant to a repository's country, profession, or subject area for major access points contained in finding aids. For example, construct selected name elements and the titles of archival units according to descriptive rules and conventions such as the following:

When encoding selected personal, corporate, or geographic names, functions, occupations, subjects, or genres and forms, use controlled vocabularies such as the following:(50)

As with most things, however, there is a trade-off between the amount of time you spend identifying and entering authorized forms for data and the long-term benefits in access that accrue. The capabilities of available software may influence how you evaluate this trade-off, although you should bear in mind that system capabilities will change over time. You may decide that you will use standardized data for major access points in encoded finding aids, but not for minor ones, especially if your system is likely to search and display high-level elements first. For example, the title of a collection, its span dates, and personal, corporate, and place names appearing in the highest level scope and content note (which reflect the major aspects of the collection) might be controlled, but not those appearing at lower levels in finding aids.

As an alternative, you might choose to add controlled access points such as names and subject headings only at those points where such names or subjects appear in the materials being described, at the series, file, or even item level. The benefit of this approach would be that users' searches could take them directly to relevant materials in a finding aid. For repositories that are already creating authority-controlled subject and added entries for their MARC records, specifying these same terms in the finding aid does not entail additional work. These and others issues concerning the use of controlled vocabulary terms are discussed in greater detail in section 3.5.3.

Section 3.5.3 also describes another means by which EAD-encoded finding aids can interact with existing standards, namely through the use of encoding analogs. Encoding analogs are attributes on EAD elements that correspond in type and function to fields or subfields found within other data structure standards such as MARC. Encoding analogs have been included in EAD to permit the exchange of finding aid data in systems that conform to relevant national and international data structure standards. As described in section 1.6, a potential benefit for repositories heavily invested in MARC cataloging is to be able to extract a skeletal MARC record from the encoded finding aid, or conversely, to build the framework of an encoded finding aid from an exported MARC record.

3.4. Understanding Multilevel Description

As suggested in section 3.2, archivists typically gather and compile information that describes both the entirety of a unit of archival materials and the unit's component parts. EAD fully enables expression of these multiple descriptive levels that are central to most archival finding aids and that reflect the levels of hierarchy present in the materials being described.

The EAD structure was formulated in an environment that was fairly independent of technical considerations. EAD's developers focused much of their discussion on the content of finding aids, that is, the types of information that are conveyed about a body of archival materials. The group never lost sight of the fact that the structure had to be translated into SGML at some point, but much of the analysis involved teasing apart and identifying the structural components of archival description. Through this analysis, the group determined that the same types of information recur throughout a single finding aid at all levels of description. Steve DeRose, the group's SGML consultant, looked at a sample finding aid and remarked that there were actually three finding aids in that document: one that describes the collection as a whole, one that describes the large groupings of materials within the collection, and one that describes the files or items within the groupings.(51) This led to conceptualizing different "views" of a collection as represented in a finding aid.

A typical finding aid has two or three views of a collection, each of which describes the same body of materials, but at varying levels of detail. The first level describes the entire collection in a very general way. It usually gives an overview of the types of material present, points out significant people and subjects represented, and provides provenance and access information. This first level of description may include a biographical sketch or agency history and a scope and content note that describes the collection in its entirety.

The next level might focus on groupings of material within the collection, describing each in more detail than was done at the first level, highlighting more specific material types and additional individuals and subjects represented. This mid-level description may be represented in a finding aid by narrative descriptions of series or subseries within the whole. Depending on the complexity of the collection and institutional practices, this mid-level description may be unnecessary.

Finally, each file, or possibly each item, may be described. This description often takes the form of a container or folder list, which explicitly lays out the intellectual hierarchy of the materials and is used by researchers to request materials.

As explained more fully in subsequent sections of this chapter, the Archival Description <archdesc> element encompasses these unfolding, hierarchical levels by first allowing a descriptive overview of the whole, followed by more detailed views of the parts, or Components <c> (see section 3.5.2). The descriptions of the parts are bundled inside one or more Description of Subordinate Components <dsc> elements (see section, which represent the mid-level and file-level views noted above. Data elements used to describe the whole unit at the <archdesc> level are available or repeatable at all the <c> levels within the <dsc> (see Figure 3.4a). In addition, information is inherited at each level from the higher levels that precede it.

Figure 3.4a. High-Level Model for the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) DTD.

In embracing the concept of multilevel description, EAD captured the spirit and intent of two other important archival standards: ISAD(G) and the Canadian Rules for Archival Description (RAD). As noted in section 3.3.2, ISAD(G)(52) provides a mechanism for first describing an entire body of archival materials and then proceeding to describe the parts of the fonds or collection using the same areas of description or elements that were used at the top level. The sum total of these descriptions, presented in a hierarchy, constitute "multilevel description." This whole-to-part relationship is also directly addressed in RAD, a national data content standard that reflects the ISAD(G) structure. RAD states: "The description of the fonds as a whole constitutes the highest or first level of description and the descriptions of its parts constitute lower levels of description. The description of the fonds in these rules consists of a set of descriptions which show the fonds as a dynamic and organic whole, consisting of series which in turn may consist of files which in turn may contain items. Each of these parts becomes (or has the potential to become) an object of description, resulting in multiple descriptions that need to be linked hierarchically to represent the part-to-whole structure of a fonds."(53)

The rules expressed in ISAD(G) and RAD are intended to encompass complete finding aid systems, including archival inventories and registers, MARC records, databases, and any other type of descriptive mechanism employed by archivists.


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  1. Throughout this chapter, the term "collection" is used to refer to the entirety of any body of archival materials, e.g., a fonds, a record group, a body of personal papers, or an artificial collection.

  2. ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description (Ottawa, Ont.: International Council on Archives, 1994).

  3. These required elements are listed in bold in appendix A. Note that the required elements alone do not comprise a complete finding aid.

  4. An empty element consists of a start-tag and an end-tag containing no text or data.

  5. A full bibliographic citation for each of the sources listed below can be found in the "Thesauri and Rules for Archival Description" section of appendix G.

  6. Bentley Fellowship Finding Aid Team discussions, July 1995.

  7. ISAD(G), section 1.0.

  8. Rules for Archival Description. (Ottawa, Ont.: Bureau of Canadian Archivists, 1990), section 1.0A1.

Table of Contents
Home Page Preface Acknowledgments How to Use
This Manual
Setting EAD
in Context
Creating Finding
Aids in EAD
Authoring EAD
Publishing EAD
EAD Linking

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