Jason Roy, at the Digital Collections Unit/Digital Library Development Lab, University of Minnesota had a word of encouragement for all those archivists out there while speaking at the VRA conference this year. "You don't have to catalog on the item level."
One of his archives received funding to scan an enormous collection for which they just had finding aids. For those not up on archival cataloging, it is customary to describe a collection by elements within a box, possibly a folder. So, you might have a folder of letters to Mr. Deere over a period of time. Alternatively, you might have a box of the Deere family memorabilia, estimated to cover 20 years of their lives. The archivist will browse through said folder or box, looking for the item he desires. The finding aid will give him a general idea where to best look.
Most digital collections have insisted that archivist must now throw some metadata at each item as it is converted to a digital format, so that an item is retrievable.
Well, Jason, upon being confronted with the daunting task of converting this large collection to a digital format in the conventional manner, said no. Rather, they would place digital files in the appropriately labeled folder according to the box / folder information that existed already and would published a finding aid to direct the searcher to the appropriate "holder," which the searcher could then browse looking for the desired item. No promises that it was there. This is not ideal, but it is as good as the existing condition. When you also throw in the technical ability to tag digital files with further information as researchers retrieve material, it means it will be a growing evolving catalog. In addition, if you then embed the descriptive metadata that you have in each file, the digital file will always be identifiable without being bloated.
This approach would free up so many of our archives, if more special collections could accept it. What do you think?