Structure of the ADS
Presentation at Archives and Reform - Preparing for Tomorrow, Australian Society of Archivists 1997 National Conference, Adelaide, 24- 26 July 1997.
We begin our presentation by looking at the structure of the ADS, not only its
'physical' or virtual structure, but also the conceptual
framework, the idea and attitudes that drive and shape its development.
With the advent of PCs and desktop database applications, ASAP
began development of the ADS in 1991. To us, the PC revolution
represented a considerable opportunity, and the way forward for
archival documentation systems. The technology placed system development
within reach, without the massive investment, overheads and specialist
programming skills required by mainframe systems.
At the same time though, archivists have been articulating the
requirements of archival documentation systems for many years.
Forced by the explosion in the amount of documentation produced by modern society and the pace and complexities of unrelenting
change, archival methods and theory have been continually scrutinized.
Here in Australia, pioneering work by Scott and Australian Archives
in the sixties, focusing on the nature of records and the entities
that created them, identified the 'relational' nature
of archival documentation. Sue McKemmish writes that what Scott
identified was the need for:
a system capable of capturing and presenting archival data about the nature of the 'logical or virtual or multiple' relationships that exit at any moment of time (and hence through time) amongst records and between records and their contexts of creation and
In order to achieve this, it was necessary to document the context
of records creation, i.e. provenance; document the records, i.e.
series and inventory and then document the relationships between
And so the Australian 'Series' System was born. However it was
born into a manual world. Compromises had to be made in order
to stretch finite resources over an ever increasing volume of
records. The focus had to be on macro appraisal and documentation.
Presentation of archival data involved manual duplication of information
and users had to be content with finding aids prepared primarily
from the archivist's viewpoint.
But now the computer technologists have caught up and we have
relational database management applications, the tools to create
the system Scott was searching for. With a computer database,
the context, record or relationship needs only be documented once.
It can then be used in any number of displays - screen, print
copy, html and beyond. Fielded information rather then unwieldy
slabs of text allow searching and grouping across attributes,
so archivists and archives users have a myriad of access points
and ways of selecting archival data to satisfy information needs.
With technology we can move beyond the limitations of the manual
world and take Scott's vision to the next level. Indeed many archivists,
across the world are already articulating 'where to next',
waiting for the next generation of information systems applications
to come along so that we can deliver. This is a fundamental concept
underpinning the development of the ADS. We must remain in contact
with the cutting edge of technology, in order to deal with the
records of tomorrow's world and to reap the benefits tomorrow's
technology can bring into our own documentation systems.
The Practical Base
The ADS has also been shaped by the practical environment in which
we operate. The decision to invest in systems development was
as a practical solution to the limitations encountered out in
our project work. Put simply - resources. Never enough time or
money for extensive series, provenance and inventory description,
on top of physical processing. Production of a finding aid, took
more up more resources with long lead times to produce, publish
and distribute. And what happened if more relevant records came
to light in the meantime?
So we turned to the computer systems. However it was not just
a matter of automating existing processes. What dimension could
technology bring to the process? How could we work more efficiently
and effectively and make maximum use of limited resources? How
could we improve the outcomes or in marketing jargon 'add
I will not pretend that we came up with the answers overnight.
Nor will I give you a detailed history of the trials and tribulations
of the ADS system development. Indeed that development is ongoing.
A mix of us working smarter, of harnessing the ever increasing
sophistication of the application software and dealing with our
clients ever increasing expectations and demands. Exciting stuff,
as we test our methods, our systems and our ingenuity to ensure
that records are preserved, maintaining their context, content
and integrity and are made accessible to the people who need to
Reforming the Process
So how have we reformed the archival processing process? I'd like
to say that we have sought to 'streamline' the process.
But in today's world that often has negative connotations, implying
loss of care for detail or reduced service and outputs. What we
have done is look at what gaining physical and intellectual control
involves and establishing a process which maximizes both, rather
then doing one at the expense of the other. We have focused on
systematic collection of data, rather then on creating any one
particular output. Our philosophy has been that if you get
the data in right then you should be able to do anything with
So we start at where the records enter an archival records program
- Accessioning. Our accessioning takes place where the records
are currently located. We seek to document the records in situ,
as found, as is before any appraisal or retention decisions are
made. Accessioning to us, is in fact the process where information
is gathered to make appraisal decisions. Hence while describing
the records in the Accession table, we are also beginning to identify
Series and Provenance entities. The beauty of the database is
that we can create the appropriate description records in the
appropriate tables, identify the relationships between them immediately
and have them available for our own use in understanding a set
What information is collected in the accession table? Firstly
each Accession is given a unique identifier, the Accession ID.
For ease of identification down the track, the current container
of the records is labeled with this id and a box, shelf or unit
number. This labeling is quite useful. It shows that the records
are part of a program, and may make people think twice before
unauthorized moving, sorting or even destruction, but then again
Other information collected:
- Describes the content - titles, details, formats, function,
date ranges, dimensions
- Establishes the context - records the current custodian
- Identifies a person responsible for the records - someone
with authority that we can use to seek further information about
the records and liaise with when processing the records.
- And any other information that will help in appraisal, whether
it be for retention or disposal, imaging or some other purpose.
As part of the accessioning process, series and provenance entities
can also be identified and established in the database. However
the aim is not to write fully fledged and finely honed series
and provenance descriptions at this stage. Merely to begin the
identification process, capturing the information available from
the records at hand, in the time at hand.
Indeed, an accession may consist of more than one series, and
a series may exist in more than one location and be part of many
accessions. Reporting from the accession table can aid in this
identification. The database system has the memory and the processing
capabilities, to make some connections our tiny little brains
cannot, BUT, and it is a big BUT, these capabilities can only
be realised if the data is captured and interpreted in the right
way. It's worth keeping in mind that computer maxim: garbage in,
So what happens at the end of accessioning? Well, the first point
is that in a lot of cases accessioning never really ends. There
will nearly always be more records. However, no matter what stage
of the process, we can always add more records and quickly bring
them under some physical and intellectual control wherever they
may be, whatever state they may be in, by creating a new accession
However, one can't accession forever, and there comes a time to
move to the next stage, to begin the processing of the records
and develop their intellectual control. Our aim is to move as
quickly as possible to inventory processing utilizing the information
gathered in the accession process to determine what that processing
should be. The physical processing is an opportunity to capture
contextual information about record creation, function and use.
It is from the records themselves that we can learn about the
entities that created, used and accumulated them, as well as the
relationships amongst both them and the records. Thus our inventory
table is a little more extensive then what you may be used to.
In the Inventory processing, each inventory item is give a unique
identifier which is marked on the item and recorded in the database.
Information describing content - titles and details, existing
controls, date ranges, physical dimensions, conservation needs,
formats - is input into the appropriate fields in the Inventory
table. The item is linked to its organisational context by referencing
- the Accession from which it came from
- the Series to which it belongs
- the Creator/Custodian which created, used and/or accumulated
Record Formats of an inventory item are recorded by clicking on
the appropriate check box.
The level of inventory processing can be varied according to the
structure, content and nature of the records and the amount of
resources available. The Inventory item could be a file, a set
of files, or even part of a file; a volume or set of volumes,
an object, photograph, electronic record or larger groups of material
that could be described under a single title.
The detail of the series and provenance descriptions can be fleshed
out from analysis of the inventory processing detail, augmented
of course with information gathered from other sources, including
annual reports, organisational charts, discussions with personnel
The idea is that all records identified in the accessioning process
are documented at the series and inventory level. We aim to document
the total records environment. Not only do the inventory,
series and provenance tables contain archival documentation of
records of continuing or long term value, but they also document
other records created and used by an organisation or individual
related to the surviving records, building a picture of the total
recordkeeping environment. Varying the inventory unit ensures
that high value records can be documented to a more detailed level
then those of lesser value or those scheduled for destruction.
In this way the ADS facilitates the systematic documentation of
all records and what is done with them. Indeed strategic reporting
from the system can manage the retention and disposal process.
But is that all there is to the ADS structure? Well no, but the
accession, series, provenance and inventory tables and the relationships
amongst and between them are the core elements and the basis on
which its functionality depends.
The ADS has tables to manage physical location, loans and users;
a variety of search interfaces for all types of users and a selection
of report options to view the total collection or any parts of
it. We have also developed customised modules to satisfy any particular
requirements we, or our clients might have in managing or accessing
Hence the ADS is not just an automated finding aid. It is an archival
management information system. It is a processing tool. It documents
records from the time they are identified as part of a records
program, through to arrangement and physical location in an archival
repository, and beyond to their subsequent use. It brings the
many processing and finding aids archivists produce within the
one integrated system.
But how do our reforms aid in our ability to preserve records,
maintaining content, context, structure and integrity ? Do they
make the records accessible to the people who need to use them?
I suggest you explore ADS In Practice and
Beyond the ADS for some answers.
||Scott, P.J. 'The record group concept: a case for abandonment', American Archivist vol. 29, no. 4, October 1966, p. 502.
||McKemmish, Sue, "Are Records Ever Actual?", The Records Continuum. Ian Maclean and Australian Archives First Fifty Years., edited by Sue McKemmish and Michael Piggott, Ancora Press, 1994, p. 187-203.|