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We Found It! Problem-Solving Through Archival Taxonomy and Meta-Tagging

November 20, 2018 • History Factory

In this article, archivist Alex Johnson explores two critical components that enable users to find and access specific archival assets: archival taxonomy and meta-tagging.

The Archival Taxonomy

What are archivists talking about when we refer to the taxonomy within a collection of materials that belong to a corporation, academic library or cultural heritage institution? We are referring to the hierarchy of how those materials are physically arranged and processed, which allows for a certain level of intellectual control. Intellectual control refers to the development of tools that allow researchers to find materials pertinent to their needs.

Let’s say a client provides us with a significant acquisition of materials that represent a number of different corporate functions. How would archivists distinguish between materials created within the context of advertising, marketing and communication vs. those materials created within the context of corporate governance? An advertisement for a new product line is a result of a different activity or function than articles of incorporation or corporate bylaws.

It’s an archivist’s responsibility to arrange materials in a way that respects the original order and provenance of the entity that created the asset, while arranging materials together that were created under the same capacity. This is why having an archival taxonomy is so important. It gives assets a physical location within the collection that is unique to the context behind the creation of those assets.

Archivists use a top-down approach that is unique to each collection, starting with larger buckets called Record Groups. Let’s say archivists receive a large collection of fictional characters that includes the asset Foghorn J. Leghorn. Where would we put him? We might start by creating a Record Group called Cartoon Characters. Within Record Group Cartoon Characters, archivists can arrange materials into smaller and smaller buckets (we call these buckets Subgroups, Subdivisions and Series, respectively), down to a level of specificity appropriate for that archival asset.

Think of nodes in a family tree and how each generation is represented. The hierarchy of arrangement follows similar principles. There might be a Subgroup called Warner Brothers, a Subdivision called Animals, and a Series called Barnyard Animals. Using that logic, Foghorn J. Leghorn now has a place in the collection: Cartoon Characters > Warner Brothers > Animals > Barnyard Animals > Foghorn J. Leghorn. This type of hierarchy helps archivists arrange large, unorganized collections into smaller, more manageable groups. Once the hierarchy of arrangement is complete, the advertisement and articles of incorporation from before have new homes with their own unique identifiers and physical locations within the archive.

Arrangement is one of the most important archiving tenets. Effective arrangement will help guide researchers in their work as well as retrieval of assets by archivists.

Issues of Accessibility

After arrangement, how do archivists then make assets searchable and retrievable online? Users are often researchers, designers, corporate stakeholders and even archivists themselves. It is one thing to be able to find an asset in the physical collection; it is another entirely to develop an open and accessible collection online for those same users.

Archivists are preservers of memory, and we always have to consider future use case scenarios. We strive to achieve various levels of accessibility in collections, both physically and digitally. To do the latter requires access to resources such as content management systems (CMS) or digital access management systems (DAMS). Such systems allow archivists to create access points to each asset within a collection through descriptions of basic details—it’s what archivists call cataloging and is another form of intellectual control. We want to make collections as usable as possible, which makes it imperative that we follow metadata standards to achieve appropriate levels of consistency and usability. The Dublin Core Metadata Initiative is once such standard.

A key point to consider in the cataloging process is the use of controlled vocabulary terms. In a CMS or DAMS, this may be referred to as meta-tagging. Meta-tagging is an important feature of any CMS or DAMS, and it is essential to the descriptive work that archivists strive to do. Meta-tagging links a record to a particular term, creating a point of access that otherwise would not have been possible. For example, when cataloging Foghorn J. Leghorn into the CMS or DAMS, an archivist might create and then tag terms like rooster, cartoon character, oversized, and loud-mouthed.

When creating new terms, it’s important to consider how researchers will search for assets. This will often be unique among various collections and details that archivists are constantly analyzing. An ideal CMS or DAMS will feature dynamic search capabilities that utilize these controlled terms and meta-tags as a way to retrieve assets that share characteristics, as determined by the archivist. For example, archivists may create a unique term representing a company’s founder, and then apply that term to a photograph of that person and to correspondence created by that person. The search result for that term will include any asset that term is applied to, creating an ideal pool of materials for users to access.

Two Essential Parts

Archival taxonomy and meta-tagging are two separate components in creating a cohesive archival collection, and are the bread and butter of an archivist’s job. While they are different in what they’re helping to solve—archival taxonomy with arrangement, and CMS and DAMS metadata with accessibility—they work together dynamically to solve the problems of search and retrieval. The physical location of an archival asset and the ability to find that asset is just as important as the metadata that archivists attribute to that asset in a CMS or DAMS. They both serve as points of intellectual control while utilizing different functions of the archives.

A user-friendly, cohesive collection requires detailed arrangement and description and takes meticulous effort from skilled archival staff. An ideal collection will not have just one or the other, but both.

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