Category Archives: Titles

On "records," papers," and "collection": a DACS case in point

As the project keeps progressing, one thing has become abundantly clear: the Meyer Schapiro archive encompasses much more than a traditional manuscript collection. While a significant potion of the archive is indeed Schapiro’s “papers,” it also houses other material such as audio-visual documents and a major collection of his own drawings, paintings, and sculptures. These components were given to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at different times and, as a whole, form an aggregate that is best described as a “collection.”

This is so for several reasons and let me unravel the thread a little to explain why.

As always, definitions are helpful and can be used to provide clarity to the prospect of titling this particular “archival unit.”

Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS), is a Society of American Archivists approved descriptive standard for the archival community that “guides archivists and catalogers in creating robust descriptive systems and descriptive records.”

According to rule 2.3.18 in DACS, there are three predominant terms that can be used to signify the nature of an “archival unit” within a title. (These are examples from the DACS manual: “Coalition to Stop Trident Records,” “Mortimer Jerome Adler papers,” and “Semans family papers”).

They are as follows:

1) Records–where the materials being described consist of three or more forms of documents created, assembled, accumulated, and/or maintained and used by a government agency or private organization such as a business or club;

2) Papers–where the materials being described consist of three or more forms of documents created, assembled, accumulated, and/or maintained and used by a person or family;

3) Collection–when describing an intentionally assembled collection.

DACS rule 2.3.18 is applied to the highest level of the archival unit and each of the above terms include materials across media. In other words, regardless if the entire unit contains diverse mediums (traditional papers, electronic records, audio records, art works, etc.), these three terms should be used to describe an entire unit.

When the project began, the archival unit was known as the “Meyer Schapiro papers,” which would have been sufficient, but not entirely accurate.

This is because the different units of the archive were not all part and parcel of the unit itself.

Diverse components have been unified to form what is now the “Meyer Schapiro collection” housed at Columbia University’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library. This includes art works (nearly 3,000 individual items) given at a separate time from the bulk of the manuscript collection. There is also archival material housed at the Art History & Archeology Department that is now part of the “collection” itself.

Because these various units have become “intentionally assembled” into an aggregate to be housed in one repository, the term “collection” is better suited than “papers” as outlined in DACS. While the creator is Meyer Schapiro himself, these different units, each with unique custodial histories, form a broader whole that have now been drawn together as the “Meyer Schapiro collection.”

Thanks to DACS, the archival community now has a standard for making questions such as these easier to navigate and give these broad terms sharper focus. Now, the next step is creating a detailed description of the collection’s components and also providing contextual information on Schapiro to buttress the finding aid using Encoded Archival Description (EAD).

In this respect, my work is just beginning…