Fonds and other stuff

Fonds and other stuff – the art of description

Carleen Dekarski Managing archives

I have to be honest. This article has taken me the longest to write so far. Purely I think due to the layers of archival discipline that can be applied to this art and therefore be complex to easily describe. Ironic?

The art of description can be difficult to master and is time consuming. The reason is that, as we know, archives are unique and therefore each intake is a total clean slate you are starting with in order to research, appraise, arrange and describe so, in most cases, each intake is being described in full from the beginning. Having said this, once completed it is a resource that is of great value and will be used many times over.

Thankfully there are uniformed standards that have been developed and continue to evolve to provide the agreed rules for describing. These rules enable archivists and users of the archives to quickly understand a collection when reading the description information as the terminology and layout used should be familiar regardless of where you in the world.

If you want a “go to” standard on description then have a read of the “ISAD: General International Standard Archival Description” document produced by the International Council on Archives (ICA). In addition, there are a number of documents out there that have been adapted specifically by countries for use by their archival facilities. Whichever you go with they all feed back to the core principles and agreed description “rules”.

So what is the art of describing about?

If the art of arranging identifies the provenance (who created or collected the records and ensuring they are not mixed with another entities records) and original order (how it the records were kept and used by the creator), then the art of description brings that and other information we know about the collection together in a uniformed layout to provide a structured, detailed report about what the collection contains.

To bring this information together we record it all in description sheets. These sheets step through the different levels of information that we know about the collection from general to specific details.

These levels of information have been given archival terms such as fonds, series and items. There are sub levels to these but we will keep it simple. Fonds you say?

Fonds, series and items

There are a number of terms used in the archival description process that may start to get a bit daunting. For example, fonds, series and items. However, if we liken these to a tree then we are pretty much talking about starting with a general overarching title of the collection at the fonds level (top of the tree – who or what the collection originates from or was created by) and working our way down to get more specific about the collection (what is contains).

Fonds – overarching descriptor, who or what created or collected the archives

Series – a grouping of similar records that were created and kept together

Item – an individual record inside a series

What does this look like in real life?

  • Records of the Toonville Water Sports Club – fonds level
    • Minutes of the Toonville Water Sports Club – series level
      • Minutes for the year 2000 – 2001 – item level
    • Photo albums of water sport events – series level
      • Blue album of the 2000 Regatta – item level

It would be rare in small archives that a collection would be described from the fonds level right through to the item level. However at least now with a hierarchical overview we can start the describing depending on what levels we have identified.

So where do we start?

Fonds description: when writing a description sheet about a collection we will capture the provenance (who or what created the collection) and with a fonds description this is achieved by writing an Administrative History (organisations) or a brief Biography (persons) sheet e.g. Toonville Water Sports Club.

Series description: Then we would capture the original order that the collection had over it by completing a Series Description Sheet. That is identifying the groups of records that were created and how they were used e.g. 2 series – minute books and photographic albums. If we haven’t captured an administrative history already then we would also include this here.

Item description: Then we could even go down to individual items and complete a description that itemises more specifically e.g. 1 photo album. This could be quite time consuming if there are a large number of items so I actually use an Inventory Sheet for larger quantities of individual items I wish to describe.

Being a small archive that I work in it is rare that I would ever start at the fonds level with an Administrative History and far more likely that I will complete a Series Description Sheet and Inventory Sheet. I also run these two items together so all the information is contained in one record. This is mainly due to the fact that the archives transferred to me are from departments in local government where Administrative Histories have already been established.

Let’s get started!

The rules of describing a collection say there is a large list of items and format styles that should be used (from an academic perspective). However most archives agree, as a minimum, there are some essential items that should be on your description sheet. Your description sheet could be a document, a spreadsheet or even a database. The tool you use is up to you as long as it captures the following:

  1. Reference code – how you identify it in the archive (I use the accession number given when it was transferred to the archives custody)
  2. Title – name that well describes the collection (can be taken from the collection itself or created if it does not have one)
  3. Dates of creation – date created or date ranges of the collection
  4. Level of description – fonds, series, item
  5. Extent and medium of the unit of description – quantity e.g. 3 metres (10 boxes), 143 rolls of microfilm
  6. Name of creator/s – who or what organisation created the collection
  7. Scope and content – more specific information about what is in the collection in relation to e.g. time periods, subject matter.

In addition to the above further fields are determined by whether you are writing a:

Fonds level description – example here

Series level description – example here

Item level description – example here

Inventory sheet – example here (for larger quantities of individual items I am describing)

Once your description information is completed they will be kept as references that will be referred to over and over again.

There are many other rules in regards to providing series numbers, how to write dates and names correctly, how to describe the quantity correctly, and the list goes on. I recommend reading pages 13-35 of the ISAD which outlines the information and how it is presented for each descriptor. Or, if you can’t handle that, from pages 40 onwards are the very practical examples of each type of description level. It looks daunting but in fact what you look for is the type of archives you are describing e.g. Corporate or Personal and it steps you through each example for a fonds, series, and  item level. It does go deeper to sub levels but you can delve only as far as you need to.

So now that you have described the collection what do you do with it? The art of boxing and shelving is coming up.

An excellent example of descriptions in action is the Kew’s archive catalogue. Kew is one of my favourite places to hang in London. Here is a link to their online descriptions for their archives.

Recognition: Magnifying glass photo by Joao Silas, licensed under Creative Commons Zero, published with thanks from

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About the Author

Carleen Dekarski

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I have worked in the quality management, information management and archival field over the last 15 years across Australia, England and New Zealand. The progression from information management to archives was a self taught journey and one that is not unfamiliar in many businesses and communities today. My daily expertise is grounded in local government archives however the principles of archiving apply to all. I am a member of the ICA and ARANZ.