Understanding Dates in Bibliographic Records

By Michelle Sayers, Church history specialist, archivist
16 June 2020

In this post by archivist Michelle Sayers, learn how to read and interpret the dates in bibliographic records to improve your research experience at the Church History Library.

When researching in archival records, you will see dates displayed in many different ways. These formats can sometimes be confusing and difficult to understand. From date ranges to approximate dates to content and creation dates, here is a breakdown of formats to understand in the Church History Catalog.

Types of Dates

A creation date is the date the archival record was made. This is the date that appears at the top of the record you are searching.

Content dates are the dates discussed within the record. You will find these dates in the summary note.

Creation dates and content dates can be different from each other. For records such as biographies, reminiscences, or histories, records are written after the events the records are about. Thus, the creation date is later than the content date.

Often, however, the creation date and the content date will be the same. In this case, you may see a date range displayed at the top of the record and single dates listed for various events in the summary.

Components of Dates

Single dates can be a single year; a month and a year; or a month, a day, and a year, formatted as YYYY MONTH DD, as in the example below.

A date range or span indicates that the records cover a span of time, such as a mission journal that covers the entire length of a missionary’s service.

Sometimes we collect records for wards or other organizations in which there is a gap in the date range. To avoid confusion and false information, if there is a gap of 10 years or more, we will indicate that in the creation-date field; however, if there are more than three separate date ranges, we will use an inclusive date range instead to avoid cluttering the title field. Please look at the individual components of a record to find the dates you’re looking for!

You may see bulk dates for large collections that include a long date range, but the dates pertaining to most of the documents in the collection fall within a predominate range.

Estimating Dates

We try hard to give all our records at least approximate or circa dates, but sometimes there is just no good way to date a record that comes into the library. Those records will be labeled “undated” in the title field. (Note in the example that Johnson is talking about his mission in 1898 [content date], but we don’t know when he wrote the actual reminiscence [creation date].)

Approximate dates are labeled with the word “circa” prior to the date. This can be a single date, a year, a date range, or even a combination of dates.