CRS Manual - Item definition

Definition

Whereas a series description provides information about the administrative context in which records were created and their subsequent history, and consignment documentation draws together information about those records within a series with similar management characteristics, item level control and description under the CRS System focuses on the unique characteristics of each record item.

For the Archives' purposes:

An item is a discrete recordkeeping unit within a series.

Generally, an item will consist of a document (eg a letter, memorandum, report, image or sound recording), or a group of documents (eg a file) that is treated as a unit for control and retrieval.

Interpretation

Use your judgement to decide what an item is, in the context of the series, and then describe the item as a constituent part of its series. First, you will need to examine the records under consideration to ascertain their system of arrangement and/or control, and consult any associated control records.

Respect for original system of arrangement and control

As far as possible, respect and represent an item as it was controlled and retrieved when in administrative use by the recording agency or person. 

Most items will already have been registered or controlled by their creator as a routine function of recordkeeping. The Archives prefers to adopt the creator's system of arrangement and control for archival management rather than adopting an artificial or imposed system for archival control. However, in cases where there is no evidence of registration by the creator, or the original registration is inadequate for archival control, the Archives will impose a system of arrangement and control during or after transfer of such records to its custody.

What constitutes an item within a particular series?

You will need to take into account both the intellectual (record) content and physical aspects of an item in representing the way records were arranged and controlled when in administrative use.

The definition provides for an item to be conceptualised as a finite unit of record/information content and as a physical handling unit. 

In a manual recordkeeping system an item will usually be a physically distinct entity, for example a card in a series of cards, a file of papers in a series of files, or a photograph in a series of photographs.

In an electronic recordkeeping system an item may not be physically separate but, nevertheless, may be readily distinguishable (through directories) as an individual image, document, file or folder, depending on the nature of the series.

Copy or original?

The term 'copy' is used in two main senses, which need to be understood for the identification and description of records:

  1. In one sense, a copy is a reproduction of an original, for example a photocopy of an original document. A distinction is made for archival control purposes between a copy made by an agency for their own administrative use and a copy made by the Archives for archival purposes such as preservation and reference.
  2. In another sense, the term 'copy' may be used to refer to the office or file copy kept as a record by an agency or person in cases where the original is sent elsewhere. In this sense, a file copy may be classed as an 'original' record.

Assessment of Archival management requirements

The extent of the Archives' intellectual control, depth of description and standard of service for records at item level will depend on a number of factors. After identifying the approach used by the agency or person to control the records, you need to assess whether it is practical to apply that approach for ongoing archival management.

This assessment (which may in practice be very simple) should include the following:

It would be useful, as part of the assessment, to investigate whether there are other ways of organising the information about items in the series, in addition to presenting it in original order, to facilitate retrieval; for example, an alphabetical presentation of names where the original order was by case numbers. (Such investigations may not be needed if effective database retrieval is available).

Where items are not convenient handling units

Where an item, as used by the agency or person recording, is not a convenient physical handling unit, and physical control is required, the information needed for effective control and accessibility will encompass physical handling unit data as well as intellectual content data. For example, in a series of Cabinet submissions, each submission is registered separately by the creator. The most appropriate unit for intellectual control within that series is the submission. For storage and handling purposes, however, the series is physically housed in binders, with each binder containing many submissions. To successfully retrieve a particular submission it is necessary also to know in which binder it is contained.

The Archives' present control systems evolved in an era when the relationship between the content and medium of an item was, in most cases, conterminous and constant. The concept of an item as a physical entity is entrenched in the Archives' practices, and the set of attributes that the Archives' uses in the description of an item does not require staff to specify whether the unit being described corresponds to a discrete physical handling unit or not: it is assumed that it does. It is possible, however, to enter details of record units, for example documents, in RecordSearch that do not equate to discrete physical handling units. Where this occurs the information provided must contain appropriate cross-references to those physical units for effective retrieval.

The existence within the Archives of these differences in interpretation and usage has led to inconsistency of application across the Archives. Issues of interpretation and the most appropriate means of recording intellectual and physical information about items have not yet been settled. Until the issues are resolved, in cases where the item, as a record unit, does not correspond to a convenient physical handling unit, a choice needs to be made as to whether physical control or intellectual control will be emphasised.

In the past, when a choice has had to be made, physical control aspects have tended to prevail over intellectual control aspects. In an ideal situation, however, where the desired level of intellectual control for items is different from the way the records are to be physically retrieved, intellectual control aspects may be preferred and the physical control details indicated in another part of the item description.

Sometimes, individual items that were physically separate when created may have been parcelled together later for handling purposes or to maintain a particular intellectual relationship, for example an album of photographs, or a bundle of files bound together. In such situations, it is necessary to investigate the reasons the items were put together. The general guidelines for such cases are:

Decisions arising out of the assessment

Following the assessment process you should be able to decide whether it is feasible to follow the original control system or impose another.

In some cases you may choose a collective unit above the item level for control and description. For example, a series of index cards may be controlled at box level because the cards are usually dealt with as a set rather than as individual items. In other cases, where value, accountability and accessibility demand it, you may decide to describe each document contained within items for part or all of a series. The item could therefore be loosely interpreted as 'a unit of sufficient size or importance as to warrant individual listing in the documentation describing the content of a series'.

Inconsistent agency recordkeeping practices may also influence the Archives' decisions about description. For example, sometimes agencies change from creating separate files for each individual case to parcelling the records of many cases in bulk files under generic titles. Each case is still indexed separately, but the filing unit and the content of the titles have altered. If the Archives only captures the agency's basic data for each separate file in the series (as would normally be the case) the amount of information about individual cases available in descriptions of items will decline after the change. Use of original control records would be required to ascertain the case content of the files.

In these situations the Archives (and its clients) will not be able to obtain, by producing a list of items, a comprehensive itemisation of cases included in the series. If the original control records are not extant, or are inadequate, and there is a demand for greater accessibility, it will be necessary to identify and describe the cases within each bulk file to provide a consistent level of detail and accessibility over the range of the series.

Data consistency and validation

The focus of item level description in the Archives has significantly changed in recent years, particularly since researchers have been able to access the item level database and take advantage of item data manipulation not previously possible. The traditional archival approach, which assumed a top-down search path from creating agency to series to item, was to record the details of each item as faithfully as possible, noting (but not correcting or removing) idiosyncrasies and errors. The approach over recent years has aimed to provide a reasonable representation of the item in a way that is suited to item data manipulation in an electronic environment, without detracting from those archival principles which ensure a basic level of archival control of item information. This means that certain compromises have been made in recognition of the constraints and opportunities presented by automated data processing used by the Archives. As a result, the details recorded by the Archives for an item may vary from the creator's original details for the same item.