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Born Digital Archival Description Guidelines: Guidance on Processing Levels

Guidance on Processing Levels for Born Digital Materials

These guidelines are intended to provide a set of extensible standards that allow archivists to describe born digital materials both appropriately and efficiently. Though the guidelines provide a set of required and optional elements at each level of description from collection down to file, the decision of how granularly to arrange and describe born digital materials, as with analog materials, will always be variable. Common considerations such as research value and ease of use for researchers still apply when considering processing levels for born digital materials, but archivists must also contend with the vast size of many born digital collections, which can often consist of tens of thousands of individual files. Given this latter consideration, archivists should be particularly careful to balance the level of work they perform on born digital materials with available time and resources, and employ these descriptive guidelines strategically to maximize researcher accessibility at the level of description chosen.

In most cases, archivists should retain the original order of born digital materials and broadly describe the creator’s organizational structure; the functions or activities that generated the materials; the documentary forms of the records; file format types; and dates of the materials. File directories, which are often automatically generated during the digital accessioning process, may be usefully repurposed as part of an inventory in a finding aid in order to illustrate the broad groupings of material in a collection. However, archivists should use caution and careful judgement when determining whether to incorporate a file directory into a finding aid inventory. Long, detailed, and granular file directories could add significant length to a finding aid without necessarily providing researchers with helpful information. Without supporting description to contextualize and make sense of the material, creator-supplied folder and file names are sometimes difficult for researchers to make sense of (for example, BBWW.doc and MOB.doc), and may not usefully or accurately convey the subject matter or contents of a folder or file. Whenever an archivist repurposes a file directory in a finding aid, she should always provide supporting description as appropriate.

If it’s determined that a creator’s file directory will not enhance user accessibility, archivists may choose to intellectually arrange and describe born digital material into broad groupings according to subject matter, format or document type, organizational functions or activities, etc. However, it is not recommended that archivists manually arrange or create new description for individual born digital files, except in cases where the high research value of the material warrants it, and/or a collection is small enough that doing such granular work will not adversely impact a repository’s overall ability to make its collections available to researchers.