Draw up an inventory with descriptions at item level (scenario 3)

This article describes how you can make an inventory, which is a useful tool for making your archive accessible. For more information about archive access and the various tools you can use for this, please see the article: Create an access pass and describe your archive.

Here, we look more closely at making an inventory at item level.


An inventory with descriptions at item level is the logical continuation of an inventory at series level. But instead of a series, you're now describing individual objects and items in your archive or collections. An inventory at item level is therefore a more detailed version of the inventory at series level, and enables searching for individual items and objects.

It is, however, more labour-intensive to compile. This means descriptions at item level aren't always equally useful for all parts of your archive and collection. For uniform series of consecutive documents, e.g. Board of Directors' reports, descriptions at item level offer little added value compared with descriptions at series level. But there are good arguments for describing certain other types of documents and objects at item level:

  • Archival items that you want to digitise always need to be described at item level;
  • A description at item level increases the findability of individual items and objects, which is certainly particularly useful for important for valuable items. Library books, sheet music and costumes are always described at item level, for example;
  • A detailed inventory at item level is an important first step if you want to make your archive or collection accessible to a wide audience in an exhibition, publication or online database.

An item-level inventory is compiled in the same way as an inventory at series level. The difference is that you're describing individual items and objects instead of series. The decision to switch to a description at item level ultimately strongly depends on the type of archive document. Each type has its own aspects and methods.

Paper archive

To describe a paper archive at item level, state the following basic elements for each document:

  • Inventory number or code;
  • Editorial form;
  • Content description;
  • Document date;
  • Size;
  • Location/placement number;
  • Document condition.

If you're describing paper documents in terms of a digitisation project, also note the following elements:

  • Dimensions;
  • Digitisation;
  • Digitisation control.

This table explains exactly what the above elements contain. You can find a useful template for describing your paper archive here.

Even when describing at item level, you will find that many archival items or objects are similar. These items can still be grouped in series for clarity and convenience.

Photographs and audiovisual archive

In contrast to written documents, images almost never speak for themselves. A good description is therefore crucial for retrospectively putting audiovisual content back into its original context, so that the meaning and message of a (moving) picture can be preserved.

Photos are useful content for publications or exhibitions, for example. And a good item-by-item description will help to find the right picture. But fully describing individual photos in large collections can be a time-consuming task, so make sure you don't underestimate it. Wholes series of photos are often taken of a single event, in which case multiple photos can share the same description.

Media with moving images or audio have the additional problem that this content is ‘blind' in archival terms: it cannot be immediately observed without a specific device to play it on. Consider VHS tapes, for example, which you cannot watch without a video recorder. It can be particularly difficult to find the right playback equipment for older media, which often makes digitisation the only option to still access the content. Descriptions at item level are therefore crucial to know exactly what audiovisual content you have. See these metadata plans from SEPIADES for photo archives and consult the Identifying and describing audiovisual content article for how to make an inventory of moving images.

Press and promotional archive

People who are responsible for press and communications also benefit from item-level descriptions in the press and promotional archive, which can be useful for preparing programmes for repeat performances or having an overview of media coverage, for example. These metadata plans suggest which elements are most useful when keeping an item-level record of your press coverage and registering your promotional archive.

Large objects/artefacts

Large objects such as costumes, scenery, props, instruments, models and puppets are very suitable for item-level description, with several arguments in their favour:

  • Storing large items requires a large depot or storage area. If you don't have this available, you might consider not keeping the objects, or repurposing or destroying them. So it's important that the documents are properly documented to make it clear that they were once part of your archive or collection. An item-level description is needed to link this information back to the inventory;
  • You have an overview of all the objects you are currently storing. A good description (possibly with photos) means the object needs less physical checking so there is less risk of it becoming damaged;
  • An item-level inventory is an important prerequisite for being able to value your collection and making a distinction between more and less valuable objects;
  • The inventory is a useful tool for keeping a record of which objects require restorative works in the short and long term;
  • An inventory is very handy when looking for a suitable storage place;
  • The descriptions of the objects can even lead to new inspiration for a new production or event.

See the 'Manual for making an inventory of a costume collection' for how to describe and photograph costumes You can read and download it here (in Dutch). It includes all the templates referred to in the manual, which you can also consult via Issuu.

Author: Florian Daemen (AMVB), Wim Lowet (VAi)

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