Archival Processing: Descriptive Notes
Finding aids typically contain the following descriptive notes: abstract, biographical/historical note, collection level scope and contents note, and, when necessary, scope and contents notes for each series and/or subseries. Notes contextualize the collection, detailing its importance and uniqueness. Notes are also used by researchers to determine a collection’s usefulness to their research.
Review existing descriptive documents before you begin. Existing descriptive information may be repurposed or used as a starting point for more in depth research and writing. Sometimes little revision or addition is necessary. If you use other publications to create notes, be sure to cite the source using the Chicago Manual of Style.
The following notes should be used for all collections, with the exception of the optional notes listed at the bottom of the page. Check the Style Guide tab for information pertaining to all notes, like how to format links.
Scope and Contents Note
The scope and contents note is a narrative description about the contents of the collection. It is a place to discuss collection highlights, obvious gaps in records, or unique perspectives on topics presented in the collection. Collection information should be provided in complete sentences and should be organized in the same order as the collection’s intellectual arrangement.
In every scope note, at least the following information should be included:
- An introductory sentence that clearly states the primary creator(s) of the collection and the collection type (i.e. personal papers, business records, etc.).
- A brief summary of the primary subjects documented in the collection
- Types of materials found in the collection (genres or documentary forms) such as minutes, diaries, reports, water colors, documentaries
- Functions or activities resulting in the creation of the records
- Date spans of the collection. Decades are written without an apostrophe: 1920s; in the narrative flow of notes, use normal date order, such as July 22, 2009; when describing a span of dates within the narrative flow of notes, "from 1800 to 1900" is the preferred format, NEVER: 1945-1947 or 1945-47.
- How the collection may be useful to researchers and why (this is really the highlights section)
- How the collection is arranged, including a list of all Series and Subseries, if applicable, with date spans (see Arrangement Note).
- If applicable, brief descriptions of the contents of each series
The scope and contents note is formulaic and can be organized into three basic parts:
- Describe the contents of the collection broadly. Include the types of materials present, the main subjects covered in the collection, as well as date ranges. If one or two topic(s)/subject(s)/person(s) represent the bulk of the collection, that should be noted too.
- Describe how the collection fits within the more general context of history and how this collection will be useful to researchers. Collection processors inevitably become the authority of the contents of the collection and are best able to speak to the usefulness of the collection.
- Describe each series briefly (in order of the collection’s intellectual arrangement), mentioning date ranges, highlights, gaps in the records, arrangement, and any unique perspectives offered.
Use the Scope and Contents Note Worksheet for assistance in crafting this narrative section.
Access & Use
Conditions governing access note: This lets researchers know whether they can have access to a collection.
- Standard text: "There are no restrictions on access. This collection is open to the public."
- If restrictions to access exist, note them clearly and concisely. The standard text for collections that contain any restricted materials is:
Some materials in this collection may be restricted due to the presence of protected health information (PHI) or other confidential information. Please contact Historical Collections & Archives for more details regarding access.
Conditions governing use note: Many collections are made available for research, even though copyright restrictions dictate how the materials or information contained therein may be used.
- Standard text:
OHSU Historical Collections & Archives (HC&A) is the owner of the original materials and digitized images in our collections, however, the collection may contain materials for which copyright is not held. Patrons are responsible for determining the appropriate use or reuse of materials. Consult with HC&A to determine if we can provide permission for use.
- If other conditions exist, note them clearly and concisely.
The biographical/historical note provides important historical context. It is about the subject of the collection, USUALLY the creator, who may be a person, institution, or business. Sometimes, the creator of a collection is a collector, and then the biographical/historical note focuses on the subject of the collection with some information provided about the creator. The biographical/historical note should cover the general scope of the person, institution, or business, but it should focus on the aspect of the person, institution, or business that is reflected in the collection and provide context for the era and geographic location in which the creator lived or operated.
Every biographical or historical note should include some or all of the following information:
- Name: This may include titles, married names, aliases, pseudonyms, common or popular names, acronyms (if an institution or business), and changes of name
- Geographic Location(s): Birthplace, place(s) of business, etc.
- Birth/Death Dates (as exact as possible) OR Business operation dates
- Education: Where and when was the person educated, what degrees were earned, etc.
- Type of business conducted by the person, institution, or company
- What the person, institution, or company is known for, or why the person, institution, or company is important (how do they fit into the general context of history?)
The "Preferred citation" note alerts researchers to the holding repository's preferred method of citing sources.
- Standard text: [Collection title], Collection Number [####-###], Oregon Health & Science University, Historical Collections & Archives
- Example: MindFreedom International Records, Collection Number 2013-026, Oregon Health & Science University, Historical Collections & Archives
The abstract is a brief and tidy statement that sums up the collection. It includes the most basic and essential information from the biographical/historical note and the scope and contents note. It serves as the primary gateway to the collection, and is usually included in the collection’s MARC record.
Though the abstract is the first descriptive element encountered by a researcher, the abstract should be written last. The easiest way to compose the abstract is to combine the first paragraph of the biographical/historical note and the first paragraph of the collection level scope and contents note, and then edit down to the most important aspects.
The abstract should describe the collection in a few sentences, which should include the following information:
- Who or what the collection is about
- Date span of the collection
- What types of records are housed in the collection
- Reference to important subjects, names, and/or keywords
The arrangement note describes the current organization of the collection. It should be used both to:
1. Describe the current arrangement of the material in terms of the various aggregations within it (series/subseries) (e.g., This collection is organized into three series: "I. Writings," "II. Correspondence," and "III. Subject files.")
2. Give information about the system of ordering the component files or items. (e.g., The records of this series are filed chronologically.)
An arrangement note can be included within the scope and content note or can stand-alone. Typically, collection level arrangement notes stand-alone, while series/subseries level notes are incorporated into the scope and content note for the series/subseries.
In addition to the notes detailed above, finding aids may also include the following (please make note of any of these on the processing worksheets):
- Language of the materials note: This tells researchers and reference archivists what language(s) are present in the collection. Use this note when languages other than English are present in the collection materials.
- Immediate source of acquisition note: This contains information on from who/where and how the repository received the collection.
- Separated materials note: Depending on available shelf space, special housing, and/or environmental needs, collections are sometimes stored in multiple locations within a repository. The separated materials note contains information on which materials were separated from the main body of the collection, if any, and why.
- Related archival materials note: Few single archival collections represent the extent of materials available on a given topic. Often, there are companion collections within a particular repository's holdings and sometimes several different repositories house related collections.
- Processing information note: This is a free format field where processors may include a variety of information regarding the processing of a collection. This can be used to: (1) give credit to and thank a funder, or (2) describe any unusual circumstances that effected processing in any way.