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Session 1: Capturing Context

Reconstructing context: the view from the basement

Christopher Jack

Australian Science Archives Project


Documenting contexts is a fundamental archival task. Establishing the contextual environment of records adds meaning to their content and lays the foundation for sound appraisal decisions. It is not sufficient to document records only. No truly valid interpretation or representation of meaning is possible without establishing the links between records and their contexts of creation and use. An understanding of recordsí contexts not only adds informational value, but is necessary in order to access their evidential value. An archivist, as well as describing records, needs to describe their contexts, to enable access and facilitate their use.

Documenting the contexts of creation and use significantly adds meaning to paper records. For electronic data or information to have value as records, access to and understanding of contextual links is also essential. The rapid development of information technology, resulting in the increased use and reliance on electronic systems presents enormous challenges to effective record keeping. Simultaneously of course, new technologies have delivered greater means of capturing and exploiting information about records. What are the impacts of new technologies on recordsí contexts? And what are the impacts of new technologies on the methods of capturing and utilising contextual information?

Accession in the Field

For an ASAP archivist a good deal of practice can be classed as field work. We are not custodial archivists. We deal in developing and providing solutions to records problems. This usually entails working for a client on site. Through the successive stages of an archival project the aim is to establish control over records in order to enable decision making about retention, storage and disposal, and of course to facilitate access and use. Initially the clientís premises are surveyed to establish the existing locations of records, to identify their contents and formats, and to estimate their quantities. Naturally there are also discussions with the custodian or client about the records, about the work to be done and the expected outcomes. An important factor to remember is that, as consultants, we can provide the best advice in the world and deliver it in a highly persuasive manner, but we have little power to compel a client to follow that advice. Thus, establishing good lines of communication with people in the client organisation can be critical to the success of our work as archivists. Customarily, these discussions with clients and their staff, as they learn about the archival process, tend to reveal the existence of further quantities of records. A recurring event, disconcerting in some cases, but the more contact and discussion the more is learned.

Briefly, ASAPís methods places the Accessioning of records as part of a Scoping and Analysis Process. This entails gathering Accession, Series and Provenance information about records. Accessioning aims to establish control, via labeling the existing containers for identification (whether boxes, drawers, shelves or whatever) and entering data about the records, as found, into the Accession table of our ADS or (Archival Documentation management System). As this proceeds, contextual information about the records is gathered. Firstly information about the systems and methods used to control the records (such as formal recordkeeping systems). These can be entered into the Series table. One can also gather information about the creators of the records and enter that information into the Provenance table. As well as establishing control, Scoping and Analysis aims to gather sufficient information about the value of the records to enable preliminary processing and disposal decisions to be made.

The process is straightforward enough when one is dealing with a records system which look like this:


However, experience has shown that the project archivist is much more likely to be confronted with this:


and, on occasions, with this:


The clientís present need may stem from a longer term malaise in records management. Usually the disorder is real and is indicative of long neglect. The people who could have supplied much of the contextual information may well be long gone. The systems used to control the records are probably defunct. Re-construction of the contexts of creation and use is a challenge. The key point is gaining a level of control sufficient for the archivist to manage the next stages of the archival program.

The Accession is the principal unit of control for a group of records in a Scoping and Analysis archival project. What will constitute the Accession? An Accession can be a room or an even larger area, or it can be a box or something smaller. An Accession is based on a physical grouping of records as found. The number of Accessions created and documented in the course of the Project will be determined in part by the location, type and condition of the records. It will also be determined by how ordered or disordered the records are; and of course, by how much time the archivist has.

The first steps in locating records are accompanied by the practical steps of photographing the records in situ and drawing location maps. These measures assist in establishing a basic level of control over large quantities of records, particularly where controls are inconsistent, or non-existent. The photographic images and location maps can be easily linked to the identifying Accession Numbers. Indeed the images and maps, once digitized, can be linked to the Accession entry itself and directly used in Accession Reporting. Digital cameras offer the exciting possibility of being able to directly download an image into the database on a notebook computer. This mapping and imaging process enables the project archivist to get a handle on the situation quickly. Very often the archivist is there because the client has a problem, such as a sudden need to discover particular records, and a fairly speedy result is demanded. Only so much can be done on-site, so often the images and maps serve as important reminders or memory joggers as data gathered is analysed back in the office. In reporting they can be used to graphically illustrate the current problems with recordkeeping practices in an organisation.

All records containers are labeled and numbered to identify which Accession they are part of and their location within that Accession. Basic physical details such as linear quantities, estimates of record items and identification of records formats and types are recorded in the Accession table of the ADS. The archivist also enter notes regarding conservation and/or advice about handling particular records. The contents of the Accession are described in the Details field. This is a limitless text Field, so there is no need to either truncate or compress information to comply with system field size restrictions. In describing the contents of the Accession, judgements are made about the level of detail used. Clearly, it must provide an accurate summary of the Accessionís contents, and be enough for analysis. If the contents of an Accession are very diverse description by container may be easiest, but this may not be practical for large Accessions. This is where small Accessions of like material are good. Ultimately, an ASAP archivist will be influenced by the nature of the particular collection, the needs of the client and the time and resources available.

This process establishes the first level of archival control and furnishes a broad description of the records in situ. It also provides a basis for the archivist to move on to the essential task of gathering collateral information. This includes any and all information available about the contexts of creation, use and storage of the records which are the subject of the archival project. In addition to documenting the records themselves it is essential to document the systems which controlled the records. Naturally this includes manual and electronic systems, records management and information systems.


Context is embedded in the records themselves and exists in the physical, functional and organisational structures surrounding their creation and use. These structures include their operatives, the people who create and use the records, and also their systems. The work practices of any organisation includes practices which are based on assumed, undocumented, knowledge. So, contextual information exists with individuals as well as with documented systems. Thus to gather this information the archivist firstly looks to the records themselves, to available indexes and registers and other evidence of records control systems. Then we move on to a process of interviews or discussions with staff, in order to augment, understand and interpret the reality of recordkeeping within an organisation.

From the records themselves, where condition and order permit, useful contextual information may be found in the course of describing an Accessionís contents. Records Series may be readily identifiable, the control systems used (or formerly used) may be evident and these can be entered into the Series table of the ADS immediately. Where it is not readily evident, the archivist can make a preliminary allocation of Series to groups of records and enter this into the Series table. Series descriptions reference the Accession(s) from which they come. Series information can be revised and updated as the project progresses, always with these cross-referencing links maintained. Information about the recordsí sources is entered into the Provenance table. As with Series descriptions, this can be revised or updated as the project progresses. Links also exist between the Series and Provenance tables.


The information gathered and entered, doesnít just contribute to a general description of the records collection. It is information which can be utilised immediately. Preliminary decisions can be made about records disposal, estimates made about on-going storage requirements and linkages made to current records and systems. The power of the relational database is not just in its capacity to hold so much different information in discrete, searchable fields, but also in the informational links between the related tables.

These links enable great exploitation of information and facilitate continuous updating of information across the relational database system. In short, the archivist can quickly - and continuously - put together an integrated and comprehensive profile of the records collection. In this way the technology enables the ASAP archivist to make swift, thorough and effective judgements.

So much for the technology for the moment, letís return to the method. Once the records themselves have been examined for contextual information about source, creation, use and control, the information gathering moves outward to the client organisation and its personnel. Initially one will probably work with records staff. But the nature of the records themselves will also direct one to particular sections of the organisation, for example accounts, human resources, engineering and so on. Organisation charts are a good starting point, but generally word of mouth or personal introduction get one to people who, because of their past experience within the organisation, have answers about how records were created and used. This is where one can tap into that undocumented contextual knowledge. Such knowledge may lead to hitherto unseen links between particular series of records, or to new information about how particular records were used. New insights into the provenance of records or series of records may also be gained. The information gained from interviews may be invaluable and not available otherwise. Interviews can be recorded, and where appropriate these recordings may be retained on compact disc or as sound bytes and stored within the database, linked to the appropriate textual description. It is all information which adds to the value of the records collection and which can and should be retained for future use. The technology now at our disposal enables such access routes to be explored.

So the archivistís widening net gathers information to re-construct the contexts of the records creation and use. As outlined above, this information may be readily available through the records themselves, through their control systems and through the knowledge of the records users. However, as also detailed above, very often the information is not readily available and must be carefully constructed from whatever sources are available, using an archivistís skills as well as a good deal of personal judgement.

The documentation of the context of the records is more than a value-adding exercise. It provides keys to the records use. For electronic records vital contextual information is likely to be less than transparent, less likely to be embedded in the document. Therefore access to context is essential to establishing the veracity of the record.

Method and Technology

An ASAP Scoping Project: establishing control via the Accession process, identifying Series and Provenance and developing contextual information, is only a first stage in the archiving process. Further processing and ordering, including an Inventory listing of all records items is needed to facilitate full access to the evidential and informational value of the record collection. However, the completion of the Scoping work, establishes a fundamental level
of control and captures essential information.

The successive stages of documentation of the records can be undertaken at any time in the future. The Accession documentation provides a solid basis on which to build. Series and Provenance descriptions can also be further developed at any time. As greater knowledge of the records context is established the information can be added to the database. Indeed the gathering of contextual information about the records may seemingly have no end, but with a database system there are no barriers to continual growth.

So with appropriate methods and technological tools an archivist can gather and manage textual descriptions, numeric data, digital information, graphic and photographic images, sound bytes, video etc. relating to records. This information can be integrated, searched, compiled in reports or tables, transferred via data links or simply held in an accessible database.

Thus the archivist is able to do much more than just textually describe the contents of an Accession of records. Available technology serves traditional and evolving archival skills in enabling the archivist to capture comprehensive contextual information, enriching the records collection, assisting in the archival process and offering greater potential for continuing access and use.

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Published by: Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb
Comments or questions to: ASAPWeb (
Prepared by: Helen Morgan
Graphics by Lisa Cianci
Date modified: 7 October 1999