Tuesday, May 1, 2012

One Versus Many and Other Semantics

When I walk into a consulting situation, I often find that my first task is to set up expectations about words. This is especially valuable to recognize in small institutions that handle diverse resources such as historical societies. (I was reminded of this recently and thought I'd quickly address it here until I move onto my consulting reports for the day.)

We all use a lot of jargon in the cultural heritage fields.

  • Sometimes we use different words to mean the same things 
    • ex. collection development policy versus collection management policy 
  • Sometimes we use the same words to mean different things
    • ex. label - most commonly used in archives for identifiers used for digital information or for applying descriptive words to materials such as photos. More commonly used in the museum field for descriptive information in exhibits
  • Sometimes, what one group does automatically does not make sense to the other group until it is explained 
    • ex. natural versus artificial collections in the archives field describe materials that come from the same creator versus materials, usually with a similar subject, that are brought together for perceived ease of use and are the arrangement is not based on provenance

I have found that often the biggest hurdle non archivists and archivists must overcome to communicate is the idea of one versus many, which is tied to the natural versus artificial collection jargon. Archivists try to add groups of materials to collections, rather than individual documents. (Though there are times when we will take in important individual records.) We care for many items arranged in smaller series and larger fonds (which are basically groups of series). We place groupings of papers in folders with inclusive names that we hope have been ascribed by the creator of the records. We try to adhere to any original order given to materials.

The curators with whom I have worked have tended to design their own groupings based around a subject rather than an original order. Incoming collections are sometimes broken up so that items can be placed in appropriate "artificial collections" based around subjects of interest to the local community. Individual materials within the group each get special attention. Individual documents might each have their own plastic enclosures, for example.

I highly recommend to clients that they try to stick with "natural collections" that reflect the thoughts of the people who created and originally organized their items. Working with groups affords materials the protection they need while also making our work faster, easier and cheaper. (No need for an enclosure around every item.) Practically speaking though, sometimes the subject arrangement works for ease of use and to accommodate small donations of items in a small museum / historical society setting.

When archivists and curators work together, we must understand and respect our differences. Cut through the jargon and explain the principles behind your thinking. I think it benefits everyone when all cultural heritage professionals can speak each other's languages and understand each others' methods.

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