5.4. Arrangement and description
The pillars of archival work are the arrangement and description of the archives. The principles of arrangement and description are the subject of numerous studies, guides and manuals. The methods themselves have metamorphosed with time from the detailed calendaring of the early modern period in Europe to the broad series summarisations and descriptions that have become characteristic of modern archives. The arrangement of archives in general follows the principles of provenance and the sanctity of the original order that have already been discussed. Common archival practice sees the archives in the first instance being arranged according to the creating entity whose history is often catalogued as a way of showing the manner in which the archives were created and accumulated. The ministry or departmental histories can be very useful to decision makers many of whom are quite often unaware of the way in which the ministry or agency has developed. They also explain the inconsistencies and contradictions that may be encountered in the archives and also lead the way to certain archives that may have a relevance. To a large extent, such a facility would not exist in the ministries and departments and it is one way in which archival services provide a superior information service to decision makers.
The arrangement of the archives then seeks to group them, in the case of Government and local authority agencies in terms of their parent ministries, then according to their specific departments and actual units.
The Question of arrangement also borders on the question of series' raising the necessity to identify series of records so that at a later stage records of the same series can be brought together.
After arrangement the next task is that of describing the archives. Archival description is a complex task fraught with many difficulties. When the rate of production of information was small the quantity of archives to be handled was also small. In Medieval Europe and early modern times it was therefore possible to describe the archives in great detail. Through the process of calendaring, detailed summaries of the archives were given. However, as the rate of creating information increased and larger quantities of archives were received it became impractical to describe the records in detail. Broad summary descriptions were increasingly given, dealing with the archives at series level rather than at the level of the individual file. Some archival institutions faced with the unpalatable need to abandon calendaring techniques adopted the compromise position where they described public archives at the series level but continued to give detailed summaries of private archives or what were termed historical manuscripts.
The process of description is essentially a mechanism to enable users to identify the archives held and in particular to locate those that they need. Description is closely related to the method of arrangement and its format depends on the way in which the records are held. In very broad terms however archival description identifies the archive type in terms of whether it is correspondence, memoranda, reports or minutes. It then gives some indication of the format of the archives showing whether they are in manuscript, typed or on magnetic media. The description attempts to quantify the records so that users have an idea of the volume that they have to contend with. There are also other items that are normally part of the description process and these include an indication of the period to which the archives relate, a summary of the content and where it has been necessary to restructure the archives because the original order could not be reestablished, this is also indicated.
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