Description is one of the most important principles of archives, and is an important step to protecting and managing your materials. It is important to work within what you are capable of doing. There are standards for archival description that you can use as a guideline to make sure that your materials are easily searchable and contain the same vocabulary as other collections. The type of description that you use depends largely on the type of materials that you have. Most collections have a variety of materials, so it may be easier to use something very universal and simple.
Archival collections are usually described in a format called a finding aid, which essentially gives information about all of the items in a collection as well as the access conditions, scope of the collection, size, types of materials, and the history of the collection, organization, and important people involved in the creation of the materials.
In most archives, finding aids are created using Encoded Archival Description (EAD), an international standard created and maintained by the Library of Congress and the Society of American Archivists. EAD is written and edited in an XML-schema, so it takes specialized training, but once staff is trained it can be easily implemented. There are also systems that allow for data entry and will output EAD, but those systems still require some knowledge of EAD. ArchivesSpace is a newly launched archival management software which combines different features of previous systems. It requires some technical knowledge for installation and maintenance, but does not require as much specific archival training. EAD provides a model for the structure of description, but Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) provides the model for how items should actually be described. This standard provides information about word choice, order of information, and what type of information is required. It also gives specific information about how to describe items on every level, and also gives a good overview of archival description in general.
These professional standards are important, but they can be impractical for a collection over which you have absolutely no intellectual control. In order to gain a basic understanding of what you have, the first step is to complete a detailed inventory of what is in the collection. It may help to look at DACS and EAD first, just to understand the type of information that archival description requires. An inventory should be made in a software that is easily sorted and searched. It is recommendedto use either Microsoft Excel or Access, or another database software that everyone in your organization can access and learn how to prepare invnentories. This site gives moreinformation: Frequently Asked Questions About Records Inventories
Once the basic inventory is complete, a finding aid can be created using one of the methods described above. This is often the step where organizations choose to hire professional archivists, since they can easily create finding aids and put them online, or at least make them accessible to your users. If that is impractical, it is simple to create the basic front matter described in DACS and then add it to the existing inventories. Many organizations keep that information in word documents or pdfs, since they are easy to print, copy and send to interested parties.
For Tribal archives it is crucial that archival descriptions be consistent, so that materials can be easily searched. Settle on common spellings—this is particularly important in identifying materials that are in Native American languages.