Glossary of Library and Archives Terms

Archives/archival collections
Records created by people and organizations as they lived and worked, preserved because of their enduring value after they have served their original purpose.

The process of observing the organization of materials in an archival collection that has been donated or purchased and imposing organization where it is lacking. This may mean, for example, putting materials in chronological or alphabetical order or grouping together materials by format, such as correspondence or photographs. This work generally also includes rehousing documents in acid-free boxes and folders; the archivist may also perform basic preservation treatments.

A process undertaken by librarians to create and maintain descriptive information about all items within a library’s holdings.

Catalog record
A document created by librarians that has standardized fields that describe aspects of a library resource (e.g. a book), including the title, author, and publisher.

Controlled vocabulary
A list of words and phrases selected by librarians to tag library resources in a consistent way that reduces ambiguity (where the same concept can be given different names) so they can be more easily retrieved by a search.

The process of describing the materials in an archival collection after they have been arranged/organized by an archivist, typically by creating a catalog record and/or finding aid.

Finding aid
A document created by archivists that consolidates information about and describes the contents and context of an archival collection. Some information in a finding aid can also be found in the catalog record for an archival collection. A finding aid is typically longer than a catalog record because it includes additional information such as an inventory of boxes and/or folders in a collection.

Library of Congress Subject Headings (LCSH)
A thesaurus, or controlled vocabulary, of subject headings maintained by the Library of Congress and used by libraries and archives across the United States. For examples of LCSH issues, see the Cataloging Lab article "Problem LCSH." See definitions of "controlled vocabulary" and "subject heading" elsewhere in this glossary.

Original handwritten or typed documents that can include letters, drafts of literary or scholarly works, historical documents, unpublished reports, etc.

A process undertaken by archivists to prepare an archival collection for use by researchers. Processing is comprised of two steps: arrangement and description. Those terms are defined above.

Rare book
A book that has enhanced value due to a combination of factors including its age, relative importance, scarcity, and unique physical characteristics (e.g. a special binding or fine illustrations).

Subject heading
A term that captures the essence of the topic of a library resource like a book or archival collection; a keyword used by researchers to retrieve library resources in an information system.