Archives Hub Names Project (2): Biographical History

It is a somewhat vexed question how to treat biographical and administrative history (in this post I’ll focus on biographical history).  This is an ISAD(G) field and an EAD field. ISAD defines it as providing “an administrative history of, or biographical details on, the creator (or creators) of the unit of description to place the material in context and make it better understood”.  It advises for personal names to include “full names and titles, dates of birth and death, place of birth, successive places of domicile, activities, occupation or offices, original and any other names, significant accomplishments, and place of death”.

On the Archives Hub we have a whole range of biographical histories – from very short to very comprehensive.  I have had conversations with archivists who believe that ‘putting the collection in context’ means giving information that is particularly relevant for that archive rather than giving a general history. Conversely, many biographical history entries do give a very full biography, even if the collection only relates to one aspect of a person’s life and work. They may also include information that is not readily available elsewhere, as it may have been discovered as part of the cataloguing process.

The question is, if we create a generic name record for a person, how do we treat this biographical information? There are a number of alternatives.

(1) Add all biographical history entries to the record

If you look at a SNAC example: you can see that this is the approach. It has merits – all of the biographical information is brought together. But it can mean a great deal of repetition, and the ordering of the entries can seem rather illogical, with short entries first and then longer comprehensive entries at the end.

Whilst most biographical history entries are pretty good, it also means a few not very helpful entries may be included, and may be top of the order. In addition, putting all the entries in together doesn’t always seem to make much sense. In the example below there are just three short entries for a major figure in women’s liberation. They are automatically brought in from the catalogue entry for individual collections. Sometimes the biographical entries in individual catalogues suffer from system migration and various data processing issues that mean you end up with field contents that are not ideal.

Millicent Garrett Fawcett biographical histories in SNAC

The question is whether this approach provides a useful and effective end user experience.

Where there is one entry for a creator, with one biographical history, there is no issue other than whether the entry makes sense as an overall biographical entry for that person or organisation. But we have to consider the common situation where there will be a dozen or more entries. Even if we start with one entry, others may be added over time.  Generally, there will be repetition and information gaps, but in many cases this approach will provide a good deal of relevant information.

(2) Keep the biographical history entries with the individual name records

At the moment our plan is to create individual name records for each person, as well as a generic master record.  We haven’t yet worked out the way this might be presented to the end user.  But we could keep the biographical histories with the individual entries we have for names. The generic record would link to these entries, and to the information they contain.  This makes sense, as it keeps the biographical histories separate, and within the entries they were written to accompany. Repetition is not an issue as it is clear why that might happen.  But the end user has to go to each entry in turn to read this information.

(3) Keep biographical history entries with individual name records, but enable the information to be viewed in the generic master record

We have been thinking about giving the end user the option to ‘click to see all biographical histories created for this person’. That would help with expectations. Simply presenting a page with a dozen similar biographical histories is likely to confuse people, but  enabling them to make a decision to view entries gives us more opportunity for explanation – the link could include a brief explanatory note.

(4) Select one biographical history to be in the generic record

We have discussed this idea, but it is really a non-starter. How do you select one entry? What would the criteria be if it is automated? The longest?

(5) Link to a generic biography if available

This is the idea of drawing in the wikipedia entry for that person or organisation, or potentially using another source.  There is a certain risk to pulling in data from an external source as the ‘definitive’ biographical information, but it the source would always be cited, and it does start to move towards the principle of bringing different sources of information together. If we want to create a more generic resource, we are going to have to take risks with using external sources.


I would be interested in any comments on this.


  1. Very interested in this too Jane- thanks for articulating the issue so clearly. It is one we will be facing in Cambridge in our Archive Management System project, using ArchivesSpace. ArchivesSpace gives the option to include biog history information in two places- as part of the person (‘agent’) record and as part of the archival metadata.

    Have been wondering whether the person record is the place for agreed/centralised biog hist data with archivists able to add additional biog hist information specific to a particular collection/catalogue to the archival metadata. But your post has made me wonder whether agreed/centralised data for a person is going to possible. Thank you!

    1. Hi Natalie, Yep, there is no right answer, of course. Within one repository, the idea of a single biographical history is far more feasible. I’m just doing some more thinking around this, and asking myself what it is really for….what does the end user really want/need? I can see a difference between well-known people and lesser known people…with well-known people having good biographical entries elsewhere. But then we can’t really treat names differently according to that measure. It does tend to make the brain hurt after a while… :-)

  2. Really thought provoking as we try and automate more information to make it more accessible. Have sent you a separate email with lots of points, but without moving towards authority records it’s clear that relying on just the Admin/Biog history field makes it really difficult to manage this data on a large scale. Great work though – really excited to see this move forward as you know!

  3. Hi Jane,
    The questions that you pose regarding how much information is appropriate for a biographical history in archival cataloguing are of great interest in the context of a joint USA, Canadian & UK project to create a Cataloguing Code of Ethics.
    The Authorities Working Group voiced ethical concerns around the ease with which the internet can be used to source biographical info for authors & creators and the inevitable influence of cataloguer bias in what we record.
    The draft document was launched last week (I’m just waiting for a link to the recording so that I can share it widely.) The document is now available for comment until 1st August. We would really welcome input from the archival community!

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