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Module B. Unit 1.


"It is now widely understood that the chief motivating principle behind archival descriptive standards is the ease with which such standards make the sharing of descriptive information, not only among archival repositories, but also with the larger world of information needs." (S.L. Hensen). How far do you agree that the facility to share information is the main reason for developing standards for archival description, and what other reasons might there be?


It has seemed fairly clear to me from reading the literature that there are two fundamental motivating principles behind standardisation in the archival world, the first being "professionalisation" and the second "technology". To test my thinking, however, I went to see my archivist friend McKenna.


"Ah," he said, " my favourite perspective on this subject comes from Canto III of the Divine Comedy. You know the place - where Dante and Virgil pass through the gate of Hell, and immediately 'find themselves in the Vestibule of Hell, where the Futile run perpetually after a whirling standard.' "


"Echoing Roberts," I said.[1]


"Yes. But of course Hensen himself dropped the statement from the second edition of APPM - or at least I couldn't find it [2] - and that suggests that perhaps he felt it couldn't be sustained as "the chief motivating principle" for standards once the principle of standardisation contained in his work had been accepted. Moral principles are useful in kicking something off the ground, but arent always sufficient for keeping them going."


"Thus Weber's remark that 'we will need to demonstrate economic reasons for exchanging information beyond the altruistic one of sharing information for broader access' [3]," I said.


"Precisely. You're closer to the point with your idea of professionalisation. Archiving, if it is a profession, is still a new one[4], still finding its feet. When Schellenberg wrote in 1965 that 'the archival in a formative stage'[5], he went on to say that 'There are two things that must be done to develop the archival profession - the same two things that were essential in the development of the library profession. The first is to define the principles and techniques of the archival profession; the second is to standardize them.'[6] You will come across these points time and again, precisely because they are fundamental, and because the profession is so relatively young. But let's look at this in a different way.


"Standardisation is a process through which a professional community is defined and created. 'Standardisation' - the work of creating common standards - brings diverse groups and individuals together. They talk. They scheme. They chase whirling banners. They do this together, and whether or not they agree or disagree in the process, the process itself creates of them a community. To sustain that community they may have to go on discussing standards ad infinitum (and thus succumb to never-ending futility), but having created channels of communication and common understandings and standards, they have also created the foundation of a profession: A community with adistinct task-oriented language; a community within which there are recognisable roles and relationships, career channels and career possibilities. It is a community which has language, viewpoint and skills in common, the acquisition and mastery of which provide rites of passage (e.g., courses and degrees), and thereby loyalties and belonging. Having passed through the rites, the initiates then hold the keys to a mystery, and take an important step towards Kahn's goal of "making ourselves and our work indispensable to others. '[7] A key requirement of a profession.”

"Or as Roberts has put it", I said, "'specialised knowledge or systematic theory is essential if archivists are to wear the mantle of professionalism. Whether the theory has any inherent value might be secondary; what putting on a good show.’[8]"

"Putting on a good show can be extremely important where the work you are doing is undervalued by people higher up who don't have the knowledge or understanding to grasp the real issues. A profession which can't blind with science when tactically necessary is probably not a profession. 'Standards' and 'standardisation' in this sense are quite useful political tools, and that political usefulness is another good reason to pursue them."


"So in the end you would agree that professionalisation is the key to standardisation?"


"Without standards there is no profession - no accountability, no 'mystery', in the medieval sense. But of course while the creation of a profession as such is at the heart of standardisation, there is another realm of motivation in which the unconscious has a role. Where doctors have to face Death and psychiatrists have to face Madness, archivists have to face the awesome responsibility of determining much of the concrete memory of the Future, and we do this in the context of contemporary Society which is more often than not incomprehending, ambivalent, or downright hostile to the concept of archives and the information needs of the future. If one has any wit at all one knows how small one is against the nature of the task, and one knows that the world in which one lives does not always respect nor even want the skills and insights you represent. I suppose on one level you and the concept of archival selection represent their Death and goneness, not to mention that of yourself and your own time and society. Against the great uncertainty and anxiety all this can engender, standardisation and the existence of standards within a shared archival community can give a sense of foundation and security. I am reminded of Schellenberg’s quote - ‘The present confusion of terms is simply the outward expression of an inward confusion of methods’ [9] - and consider the role of standardisation in the attempt to banish this confusion.”

"So - standardisation as a response to and defense against anxiety?”

Yes. If a profession is going to operate with any confidence in the realm of the unknowable and the unknown it has to have lifelines, and that is one of the functions of standards and standardisation. Any profession which doesn't operate in the realm of the unknowable and the unknown, by the way, is not a profession but a trade.”

"There is also a sense," he went on, "in which standards are a way of creating efficiency, and perhaps of cutting costs. It may take a genius to create, but even people of moderate talent and insight like you and me can fulfill a clear standard, and having a standard means that you can apply procedures rather than having always to invent or re-think them. It saves time, for researchers as well as workers. Furthermore, where clear standards exist - whether within a particular repository or around the world - and where there is training in those standards, the potential for mobility not simply of information (in Hensen's sense) but within the profession is increased enormously. One has only to think of nurses working their way around the world to know the kind of thing I mean. An archivist trained in Australia could move to Singapore and then to America. An archivist who falls ill or resigns can be replaced, and the job itself carried on without a hiccup or a hitch. Idiosyncrasy and the character of the individual become less critical to the proper doing of the job. Apart from anything else that should make archiving cheaper and more widely accessible."[10]

"Those may be consequences of standardisation and perhaps therefore reasons for it. But what of my point about technology? Just in the most recent issue of the Journal of the Society of Archivists Cook has written'No doubt it was the arrival of computers' (which re-aroused interest in description standards in the early 1980s), while in the same issue Kitching refers to standardisation and to 'our American colleagues who have largely been driven by the imperatives of computerisation and electronic data exchange.' Miller, in a volume in the Society of American Archivists' 'Archival Fundamentals Series' states that 'Archival standardization has generally been driven by automation.' New technology demands use, and the new electronic technology demands standardisation." [ 11]

"I agree," McKenna said, "standards are demanded by technology whether they are appropriate or not, and there is no question that the volume and perhaps flexibility of information which can be exchanged through computers, for example, is increased exponentially where there are computer-based common standards." He then pointed out that one of the reasons that standards continue to whirl and professional language is in constant flux is because the technology driving so much of it is itself constantly changing[12]. "But apart from the sheer excitement which technology creates, and the altruistic vision which people like Hensen have of a technology which frees our capacity to share information and communicate, we must also come back to the question of professionalisation. A profession which cannot keep up with the latest technology which impinges on its field quickly faces the danger of ceasing to be a profession and of becoming a relic. A business archive which cannot speak the language of international data management will lose any voice it has achieved within the parent organisation. The more powerful the archivist's participation in the culture of electronic information storage, retrieval and communication, the more secure is the job, and hence the profession. On this level, the chief motivation behind standardisation is professional survival.”[13]

"But if we allow ourselves to be driven by technology," I said, "aren't we in danger of being left high and dry when - as inevitably happens - the technology itself radically changes?”

"Well, the view I ultimately come back to is one which I have probably cribbed from Schel1enberg. It is: To the extent that standards represent the distilled wisdom of a great many archivists, they represent not only what is good and perhaps essential, but also what is possible. That is, they provide an archivist with a guide to effective, efficient and realistic management, within which elaborations are possible, but the foundation secured. To me personally this is the chief motivating principle behind standards.”

"Sort of a Virgil to a Dante?" I said.

"Well, there is a tradition to this profession" said McKenna, "and there are elements of nobility and wisdom which an appropriate set of standards can embody and pass on. Every profession needs its guides. If we were talking more deeply I would draw a distinction between standards in this sense, and 'standardisation' in the sense required by the new technology. But I expect you have more than enough now to get on with your essay.”


1 . Referring to the very interesting discussion in Roberts (1990).

2. Hensen (1989) is given in the bibliography for this Unit, and given the nature of the reference I had expected to find the quote there. Having scanned the book several times without finding the quote I have generated the hypothesis that it comes from the first edition and was dropped from or altered for the second. I do this, of course, in the knowledge that the hypothesis may be wrong.

3. Weber (1990) , 51.

4. One thinks of the title of Hilary Jenkinson's 1948 lecture, "The English Archivist: A New Profession", cited in Schellenberg (1965), 357; the fact that, for example, the Association of Canadian Archivists "grew out of the Archives Section of the Canadian Historical Association (CHA) in a burst of professional maturity and independence in 1975" (Atherton 1994, 270); the fact that, for Frank B. Evans, "the world of archives and archival theory and practice" in the 1960s was defined by a four week Institute on the Preservation and Administration of Archives centred on the American National Archives, "supported by selected readings from the American Archivist and a scattering of other journals..." (Evans 1990, 13), and the growth in programmes and practice since then; and so on.

5. Schellenberg (1965), 60.

6. Schellenberg (1965), 63.

7. Herman Kahn, quoted in Evans (1990), 16.

8. Roberts (1990), 119. Bennett (1994) is interesting in this area.

9. Schellenberg (1965), 75.

10. See, among others, Schellenberg (1965), 77-79. Lawrence Dowler, in the Foreword to Walch (1994) makes a number of these points, and also provides support for Hensen: e.g., p. xi: "The development of standards makes it possible for any telephone in the world to communicate with any other telephone. The absence of commonly held standards for archival description is an obstacle to archivists who must preserve records and scholars and others who want to use them."

11. Cook (1995), 15; Kitching (1995), 94; Miller (1990), 83. See also, for example, Cook and Proctor (1989), p. 55, where they state that "MAD is not in itself intended to serve as the basis for a computerized system for the interchange of archival data, but much of the impulse behind its development was the expectation that electronic means for the exchange of archival data would inevitably be in use before the end of the century."

12. See Bellardo and Bellardo (1992), p. vi, on continually changing language and the boundaries of professions, convention and standards.

13. See a related discussion in Bennett (1994).


Alighieri, Dante (1949 edition). The Comedy of Dante Alighieri The Florentine. Cantica 1. Hell. Dorothy L. Sayers (trans), Penguin Books (Harmondsworth, Middlesex).

Atherton, Jay (1994), "The Contribution of Archivaria to the Development of the Canadian Archival Profession", American Archivist 57:2, 270-277.

Bellardo, Lewis J. and Lynn Lady Bellardo, comps. (1992), A Glossary for Archivists. Manuscript Curators, and Records Managers. Society of American Archivists (Chicago).

Bennett, Richard (1994), "What drives record management? A personal view", Records Management Journal 4:2, 65-76.

Bradsher, James Gregory, ed. (1988), Managing Archives and Archival Institutions. Mansell Publishing Ltd. (London).

Cook, Michael (1995), "The International Description Standards: an interim report", Journal of the Society of Archivists 16:1, 15-25.

Cook, Michael and Margaret Proctor (1989), A MAD User Guide. British Library R & D Report 5965, Gower (Aldershot).

Evans, Frank B. (1990), "American Archives, 1959-89: A Personal Perspective", American Archivist 53:1, 12- 21 .

Hensen, Steven L., comp. (1989), Archives. Personal Papers. and Manuscripts: A Cataloguing Manual for Archival Repositories. Historical Societies. and Manuscript Libraries. 2nd ed.. Society of American Archivists (Chicago).

Kitching, Christopher (1995), rev. of WALSH (comp.). Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook, Journal of the Society of Archivists 16:1, 94.

Miller, Frederic M. (1990), Arranging and Describing Archives and Manuscripts. The Society of American Archivists (Chicago).

Roberts, John W. (1990), "Archival Theory: Myth or Banality", American Archivist 53:1, 110-120.

Schellenberg, T.R. (1965), The Management of Archives. Columbia University Press (New York).

Walch, Victoria Irons, comp. (1994), Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook. Society of American Archivists(Chicago).

Weber, Lisa B. (1990), "The 'Other' USMARC Formats: Authorities and Holdings. Do We Care to be Partners in this Dance, too?", American Archivist 53:1, 44- 5.