Exhibition | Dynamic Archives

In October 2018, Dynamic Archives: naming and identification was installed as a small-scale cube exhibition in the reception area to the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Curated by Kimberly Springer, Celeste Brewer and Yingwen Huang, our intention was to make visible the thoughtful labor and ethical thinking that RBML’s archivists put into description. In addition to holding degrees in archival science and years of study, archivists have to keep up with the latest practical and ethical developments in the field.

Dynamic Archives: naming and identification takes recent examples in oral history, American history and Chinese history to illustrate how descriptive practice in archives and special collections change with the times, but also in response to challenges to historically exclusionary and white, patriarchal supremacist practices that obscure many lived experiences. This exhibition also demonstrates how improved descriptive practices can improve the researcher experience and enhance discovery.

Exhibition installation in 2018 (case 1)

Archives are dynamic and changing collections. 

Far from the everyday usage of an archive as untouched storage -- think of Gmail’s “Send & Archive” feature -- the documents and artifacts held in the archives of the Rare Book & Manuscript Library had a life before they found their way into our collections. And those same archives will be around long after we are gone. 

For this reason, archivists and curators -- the people who do the work of acquiring donations, arranging materials and describing them for research use -- have to keep up with the times. Staying up to date on changes in how we describe the people, places and things that hold meaning is a large part of an archivists’ toolkit. Individuals and institutions are continually rethinking acceptable language, as well as phrasing and terminology that is more specific than what came before. 

In this exhibition, Dynamic Archives, archivists Celeste Brewer and Yingwen Huang, and oral history curator Kimberly Springer, take us through just a few examples of archival collections and materials whose naming, identifying and meaning have had to keep up with changing perspectives, translation practices and epistemologies -- historical, social and political. Throughout the exhibition, you’ll find definitions of terms that archivists use to make materials discoverable for you. 

Read more about these collections and other the Rare Book & Manuscript Library collections on our website:
Exhibition installation in 2018 (case 2)
Why would an archivist change a collection’s title?  

Archivists at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library have recently changed collection titles based on several concerns:

Accurately reflecting the involvement of women, LGBTQIA+ people and communities, and other marginalized groups in creating collections.
Updating transliterated names of collection creators and providing additional cultural context to Chinese language collections.
Removing offensive and degrading language previously used to refer to people with physical and/or learning disabilities from description created by archivists, rather than collections’ creators.

Unlike published materials, archival collections do not usually come to the library with formal titles.  Instead, archivists create collection titles, guided by a set of rules outlined in Describing Archives: a Content Standard (DACS).  Collection titles are generally made up of two parts:  the names of the creators or collectors, and the nature of the materials being described.

Archival Science Terminology

archival description: n. ~ 1. The process of analyzing, organizing, and recording details about the formal elements of a record or collection of records, such as creator, title, dates, extent, and contents, to facilitate the work’s identification, management, and understanding. 

Archival description is similar to the process of bibliographic description…A key difference is that, in the absence of a title page to serve as the chief source of information, archival description requires a significant amount of the content of the description to be supplied from the context of the materials being described…archival descriptions are intended to be updated if materials are added to the collection. – Society of American Archivists, archivists.org

provenance: n. (provenancial, adj.) ~ 1. The origin or source of something. – 2. Information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.

Provenance is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. – Society of American Archivists, archivists.org

Further Reading

Dynamic Archives exhibition announcement

Celeste Brewer, “The Ben Duncan and Dick Chapman Papers Come Out“; “Reprocessing reveals role of disability in Randolph Bourne’s radicalism,” “Eleanor Roosevelt Speaks for Herself: Identifying 1,257 Married Women by their Full Names

Michelle Caswell, “Teaching to Dismantle White Supremacy in Archives,” The Library Quarterly: Information, Community, Policy, Volume 87, Number 3, July 2017

poster: “Identifying and Dismantling White Supremacy in Archives, Content,” produced by Michelle Caswell’s Archives, Records, and Memory Class, UCLA Fall 2016