Description in a place between Archives and Libraries

By Lesley Parilla
I am a cataloger whose records might create user confusion, for materials that have description meeting minimal archival standards. Yet I would argue that the records I create clarify more than they might confuse.  The cataloging system was created by archivists and librarians rethinking how to apply traditional and developing descriptive schema. The resulting “confusion” entices users to ask staff questions and find resources they would likely miss if my records didn’t exist.  In library school I thought of the approach as “record duplication”, but now understand it as “data reuse.” As information specialists, librarians and archivists strive to enable users to find and utilize the resources we manage, whatever their format.  The online environment has changed how users expect to interact with records; items in a library or archives are no longer constrained to one type of system because of format or department.  Professionals are actively working to overcome these challenges in online platforms such as Digital Public Library of America.  But how do we address searchability when archives create records for a collection, while libraries and museums create record for the item?
I recently posted a question on a professional listserv if anyone had experience with archival collections that had collection record and item level records available online–e.g. a finding aid and individual library style records.  I received two responses.  One from a librarian who created finding aids and item level MARC records in their Integrated Library System (ILS).  The other respondent was concerned that the mix of records would most likely cause confusion since there is usually the expectation of one record per item, and in archives, one record per collection. 
Information professionals have been duplicating portions of description for searchability for decades.  Many archives have a policy to create a MARC collection record and link it to a finding aid, which ideally uses Encoded Archival Description (EAD).  A collection can thus have 2 records online (one in MARC and one in EAD), to assure description is available in more locations. 
But what if we took it a step farther and created item level records for the box list in the finding aid?  Would these records cause user confusion? I would say the risk is worth it.  I’ve seen the benefits for the last three years with Smithsonian’s Field Book Project which creates item level records for materials that have online finding aids.  I go through collections in order to catalog one type of material—scientific field notes.  These item level records have available alongside the collection level records and finding aids online in Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center since 2012.  Because they are item level, Field Book Project can to contribute them to well-known online platforms like Internet Archive, Digital Public Library of America, and Biodiversity Heritage Library.  Since the records went live, Smithsonian Institution Archives has seen a significant rise in the number reference questions and digitization requests for these materials.
The records might be confusing.  However, the confusion induces users to look more closely at the content and ask questions.  The statistics argue that users have benefited by finding pertinent content than if the records had not been available.  Confusion can actually spark questions, when a user recognizes the possibility of useful content.  It might be a bit of a “Google effect”, but users have been conditioned by the internet to accept mixed results, if it means they may find more useful content.
At face value the records may confuse, but we as information professionals can assure they are well-constructed, and that additional description is only used when necessary.  Collection-level as well as item-level records provide a powerful mix of description and access to users, especially when they don’t even know they need our content.  
Lesley Parilla
Cataloger, Field Book Project
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