Describing Archives: A Content Standard Book Review
- Describing Archives: A Content Standard. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2004.
Sitting down to read Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) falls somewhere between reading Chicago Manual of Style and stereo instructions on the enjoyment level (despite its length, I prefer to read the former.) DACS is a replacement standard for the Society of American Archivists' Archives, Personal Papers, and Manuscripts. DACS was designed to be a descriptive standard that can be used within various types of systems for recording descriptive data, and the authors of DACS go to great lengths to stress the standard's independence from the systems that output descriptions. An archivist can use DACS within EAD, MARC 21, or various in-house systems for storing data about collections. The book has three sections that treat how to describe materials, creators, and names. DACS avoids the problem of not providing more than five levels of arrangement and description by requiring that "an information system employ some means of linking ogether the various levels of description." The standard does not, however, provide instructions for description at the item level or lower. DACS notes that the variety of types of materials prevents providing rules for description at that level.
DACS provides a brief overview of the principles that undergird it. These principles highlight issues such as the uniqueness of archival materials, respect des fonds, the difference between arrangement and description, the nature of description, and the necessity of describing the creators of archival materials. As stated above, DACS strives to be independent of any type of access tool. DACS does encourage, however, the creation of access points within whatever tool the archivist uses to store the data. In other words, by supplying archivists with a standard way of presenting necessary descriptive data such as names, places, subjects, documentary forms, occupations, and functions, DACS creates access points for finding resources in much the same way that judicious use of the Library of Congress Subject Headings creates access points for finding books.
The code is structured in such a way as to prevent redundancy and to make sure that the content of each element is mutually exclusive. Because output standards vary, DACS does not require a specific order for elements that one includes in a description. One helpful provision that DACS makes is that it often suggests where information to supply for a certain element can be contained. For example, it may say something like, "Take the information from other descriptions of archival materials," or "Derive the information from the materials themselves and repository policy." These locations are not always intuitive when one is processing collections. DACS also provides other types of useful information like how to determine what the appropriate title for a collection is. Finally, DACS is also helpful because it allows for a good deal of leaway in how one describes records. DACS recognizes that collections, materials, funds, practices, and capabilities vary greatly from institution to institution. Additionally, archivists differ in the way they describe collections. Rather than supplying a wooden standard that falls into disuse, DACS offers archivists a tool that can be appropriated in developing in-house description policies that in turn bring consistency to descriptive practices.