Collections Principle 2

Collections Principle 2: Collections should be described so that a user can discover characteristics of the collection, including scope, format, restrictions on access, ownership, and any information significant for determining the collection’s authenticity, integrity, and interpretation.

Collection description is a form of metadata (see also METADATA). Such description serves two purposes: it helps people discover the existence of a collection, and it helps users of the collection understand what they are viewing. Describing collections in established catalogs and registries is also a way of establishing the authority of the content.

Collection descriptions should help users understand the nature and scope of the collection and any restrictions that apply to the use of materials within it. It is good practice to incorporate a narrative description of the collection, description of the scope and extent of the collection, names and contacts for the organization(s) responsible for building and maintaining the collection (as organizational provenance is an important clue to the authenticity and authority), terms and conditions of use, restrictions on access, special software required for general use, the copyright status(es) of collection materials, and contact points for questions and comments. Many project planners find a description of the methodologies, software applications, record formats, and metadata schemes used in building other collections helpful.

There is no dominant metadata standard for describing collections, although in the last few years there has been substantial progress towards this goal.

Archival description can also be thought of as a form of collection description.

  • ISAD(G): General International Standard Archival Description (2000) Set of general rules for archival description developed by the International Council on Archives.
  • Encoded Archival Description (EAD) website The EAD provides an XML representation of archival finding aids.

Good examples of collection-level terms and conditions of use:

Examples of websites with informative information about the collection and/or project:

When possible, collections should be described in collection-level cataloging records contributed to a union catalog such as OCLC’s WorldCat (

The registries listed below allow institutions to register their own collections, or to propose their collections for registration. Unfortunately most registries appear to be poorly maintained.

Comment: Z39.91 Links updated by karen.wetzel on 09/03/2008
The following link was updated to

NISO Z39.91 Collection Description Specification (2005)

In addition, the Metasearch Initiative link was updated to (previously:
Last updated: 09/03/2008