How to preserve your family or community archive: the Covid-19 lockdown blogs. Blog CM #5

  • Need to list your archive collections?
  • Want to learn more about cataloguing archives?

The documentation you create when you take in (“accession”) new material should include a brief description of each batch of material you’ve received (see blog CM #2).  But you will probably also want to list in more detail (or “catalogue”) the material in your personal or community archive.  As well as being very useful for you, catalogues can be shared, for example via a website, so that other people can see what material you have.

Archives start life as working documents and have a purpose before they reach you.  This underpins the distinctive way in which archivists approach cataloguing.  An archive catalogue describes documents by groups (or “collections”), where each group originates from the same source or creator. (For example, at Gloucestershire Archives we have catalogued documents created by Gloucestershire County Council as a collection).  The documents within each collection are arranged in meaningful groups which should, ideally, reflect the use or function of the material in its previous, pre-archive “life”. Reference numbers are used to link items belonging to the same collection and to show how they fit together.

Let’s look at what this means in practice.

The first, very important, grouping for the material in your archive relates to its creator or “provenance ”. Think of each collection in your archive as a jigsaw. Even if you had two jigsaws of the same scene, you would not want to mix up the pieces between boxes . Likewise, your catalogue should not muddle together items generated by or received from different sources, even if they relate to the same place, person or topic. For example, Joe Blogg’s collection of postcards of the village pub should be catalogued as a separate entity from the Women’s Institute project on the village pub. You can use keywords to flag up that both collections contain material about the village pub.

Each collection needs a top- level description. This need only be a sentence, for example “Records of Anytown Skittles club, 1955-1985”. It also needs a unique reference code. Let’s say your reference for this particular collection is ASC

You will then need to decide how to intellectually “arrange” each collection. Say the Anytown Skittles Club archive contains a run of minute books, some annual accounts and balance sheets, and a couple of photograph albums. These could be grouped into three “series” (minutes, accounts, photographs) numbered ASC/1, ASC/2 & ASC/3. Then within each series you arrange the relevant items, usually in date order. Your earliest minute book would be ASC/1/1; your earliest balance sheet would be ASC/2/1 and so on.

In this example, your catalogue structure, or “tree” consists of three “levels”: collection (top level), series (group) and item (individual document). Large and complex collections may need additional levels of arrangement. (You can read more about this in the resources below). But you are more likely to encounter the opposite problem: small amounts of material from any one source, which makes it hard to detect original groupings. The main message is to look carefully at the collection you are cataloguing and respect any groupings or arrangement which you can detect, unless you can be confident that they are not significant. If, despite close inspection, your collection seems to have no obvious order, groupings or arrangement then you will need to devise a structure. If you are only dealing with a few items you may decide to list them as a “flat” continuous sequence but bear in mind you may receive more material from the same source, which will start to make your flat sequence unwieldy.

Now let’s look at what pieces of information you should include in your descriptions. Professional archivists usually follow international cataloguing standards known as ISAD(G) which set out 6 mandatory elements and up to 26 optional elements. If your descriptions include the following elements, they will be following ISAD(G) rules.

Element Type Notes
Unique reference code Mandatory  See the AnyTown Skittles Club example, above
Level of description (typically collection/series/item) Mandatory You should always have collection and item level descriptions; what other levels you have depends on the complexity of your catalogue
Title Mandatory A short, or summary description
Creator Mandatory The person or group etc who created or cultivated the document
Description Optional Often very useful and helps to keep the title short.
Date/s of creation Mandatory Use whole years only (facilitates sorting and searching).  You can put a more exact date in the title or description fields.
Extent (quantity and format) – Mandatory For example, 1 map; 2 photographs; 3 volumes; 4 documents
Location Optional Sensible to include this so you can readily find each item.  However, you may wish to omit this element from a public version of the catalogue

It’s a good idea to have electronic, rather than paper, catalogues as these can be more easily shared, re-formatted and searched. (If you have inherited an old, paper- based list, consider getting it into electronic form). There are many different software packages available, including some which integrate with websites, but if you are on a tight budget you may choose to use a simple EXCEL template, or similar. (A sample cataloguing template you can use or adapt is available). Just make sure that, whatever system you use, you will be able to get your data out again if necessary .

Finally, three cataloguing top tips:

• Something is better than nothing. Cataloguing is time -consuming and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. Consider prioritising which collection you catalogue first; and remember, you don’t have to describe every item in great detail
• Agree and communicate cataloguing rules at an early stage. A set of written instructions will help ensure consistency between people and over time.
• Avoid “short -hand’, unexplained acronyms and all but the most common abbreviations. This will help keep your descriptions meaningful to a wide range of people over a long period of time.

Archive cataloguing can be a tricky concept to grasp but fortunately there are many useful resources. You may find the following links and articles helpful.

Based on Heritage Hub training developed by professional staff at Gloucestershire Archives.

At Gloucestershire Archives, through our National Lottery Heritage funded “For The Record” project, we will support people to: “document, care for, interpret and celebrate their personal and shared history”.

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