Archival Processing Methodology: Part 6 – Dates

In our last methodology post, we discussed the challenge presented by the international scope of the collection and the wide array of languages which accompany that diversity. Today’s discussion will focus on another challenge in the collection: undated materials.

Depending on the era and the company, car catalogs and other printed materials contain important date information, sometimes even down to the month. These dates are often included as part of the literature code on the back cover, which identify the specific publication for a company. However, there are also many catalogs that do NOT provide this information. In an arrangement scheme where all the folders are dated and much of the material is being arranged chronologically, this can be somewhat problematic.

Often, the best context clues will be the style of the cars being advertised or even the format brochure itself (such as condition, type of paper, etc.). Additionally, the style of clothing on people can also be clues. This evidence often provides enough information to narrow it down to a decade or two. When this is the best we can do, the date will be listed on the folder and finding aid as “ca. 1960s” or “ca. 1970s-1980.”

Sometimes, if the material is for a particular model that we can use a reference work to determine the years during which it was produced. When this is a short span of years, this information allows us to achieve slightly better precision than just the decades. We can then use dates such as “ca. 1964-1968” or “ca. 1994-2000.” Other similar context clues suggest whether a particular company was only around for a few years. We can use such tentative information to narrow down the date range for the item.

Any of the estimated dates will always include “ca.” before the date to let you know that it is an estimate supplied during processing and not from the actual item itself.

Despite all of these available clues, sometimes the date span for an item cannot be easily discerned. In this case, instead of using a poor guess, the item is labeled “n.d.” which is short for no date. Undated materials are filed at the end of a chronological run. If a particular folder contains chronologically arranged materials, the dated materials come first and the undated ones at the back of the folder. The date will be written on the folder like this: “1970-1981, n.d.”

Another factor in trying to assign estimated dates comes down to available time. A large part of the More Product, Less Process strategy that we are implementing involves not getting bogged down in item level description. The scope of what we have to accomplish is so wide that often it’s not that we can’t find a date for an item but that the time value of such information is to low for the necessary investment of effort. Surely with enough time and research, most models or body styles can be discerned. However, we lack the time to do this, and instead must keep progress moving forward and use circa (ca.) or undated (n.d.).

Past methodology posts can be viewed here.

Don’t forget to come out to Winterthur Museum on Saturday for their Historic Autos and to hear a talk about the Vinson Collection!

Emily Cottle is Project Archivist/Cataloger for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.

2 thoughts on “Archival Processing Methodology: Part 6 – Dates

  1. I note the difference between the automotive artifacts in your collection (paper) and the automotive artifacts in my collection (iron and steel). To date, my automotive wrench collection includes those provided by Winton, White Steam Car, Ford, Crosley, Austin Healey, Rolls Royce, Triumph, Indian Motocycle, Deluxe Motorcycle, Overland, Marion, Maxwell, Mack, Autocar, and Pierce Arrow. I also have 1st generation owners (1915 Mossberg) and auto mechanics (1922 Billings & Spencer) boxed ratchet & socket sets.

    • Thank you for your comment! There certainly is quite a contrast between the two types of materials.

      However, I will remind our readers that the Vinson collection does contain a number of three dimensional objects. Though largely made of model cars, we do have some hubcaps and promotional items. Stay tuned here to learn more about these items as they are processed later in the project.

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