Cataloguing archives, in four very easy steps

If you’ve browsed our archive catalogue, you may have found it rather different to, say, one you’ve used in a library. In this blog post, I’m going to explain a little of how archivists worldwide create catalogues.

What’s unusual about archive catalogues is that they aren’t flat lists. Instead, they have multiple levels. If you look at our POST 22 catalogue, for example, you’ll see that it’s arranged like a tree with branches at different levels. This hierarchy is part of the General International Standard Archival Description, to which many archivists work worldwide. A typical archive catalogue has four main levels. In descending order, they are: FONDS – SERIES – FILE – ITEM. Here’s how they work.

Matt describes the archive as a whole (the fonds).

Matt describes the archive as a whole (the fonds).

In this picture, my trolley holds an imaginary archive that I’ve just received. There are many boxes containing hundreds of records. Reading them all would take weeks. It would, however, be helpful for researchers (and staff) to get a general overview of the entire archive: how much of it there is; who created it and when; the kinds of information within it. My catalogue, therefore, would start with a single description of the archive as a whole. UK archivists often call this whole unit the fonds (a French word that means accumulation, related to the English ‘fund’).

Matt describes a grouping of related records (a series) within the fonds.

Matt describes a grouping of related records (a series) within the fonds.

One level down, I’d divide the fonds into groupings of related records. In the picture above, I’ve chosen one box as the first grouping. I would try to provide useful distinctions for researchers, but also to preserve the existing arrangement of records within the fonds. Some archive services classify records by the departments or offices that produced them, others employ functional distinctions. However it’s done, the entire fonds gets subdivided into multiple groupings, which archivists call series. Like with the fonds, my catalogue would include descriptions of each series’ extent, scope and content. At the BPMA, series are called POST classes; many are divided into sub-series.

Matt describes a single set of papers (a file) within the series.

Matt describes a single set of papers (a file) within the series.

On the lowest levels, I’d describe every individual record within each series. In the picture above, for example, I’ve picked out from my imaginary series a single folder of photographs to describe. These are the file-level descriptions. In archivist-speak, a file is a discrete group of documents that were kept, created or used for a specific purpose.

Matt describes a single photograph (an item) within the file.

Matt describes a single photograph (an item) within the file.

It’s possible to go one level further down and catalogue each separate item within a file. These are called item-level descriptions. It’s not always necessary to do this, but it can be done. In the picture above, I’ve started describing the individual photographs that form the file. We could also identify a single book, document or image as an item because they can’t be subdivided any further.

What I’ve done, ultimately, is to describe the whole archive several times over. At each descending level, I’ve described smaller and smaller bits of the archive, in increasing detail. The resulting catalogue has a tree structure. It lets researchers zoom in on the parts of the archive they’re interested in, without losing track of those parts’ evidential and informational relationships to the whole. Think of it like a collapsible map of the archive, telling you its physical and intellectual geography.

This diagram shows how catalogue descriptions at different levels fit together to form the tree. Numbers of series, files and items always vary in practice.

This diagram shows how catalogue descriptions at different levels fit together to form the tree. Numbers of series, files and items always vary in practice.

What I’ve discussed here is an ideal-world scenario. Archives often aren’t neat or easily divisible, and may actually be collections of material from different sources. There’s also the possibility of future deposits. But working towards a shared international standard, as archivists do, means that we can all contribute to a project over time. It also means catalogues can be shared online with other archive services in the UK and abroad.

There’s a whole lot more to cataloguing than this. But I hope that this introduction begins to explain why we do what we do, and how it works. If you have any questions about archival work, I’ll happily try to answer them.

- Matt Tantony, Project Archivist (Cataloguing)

5 responses to “Cataloguing archives, in four very easy steps

  1. That is a truly wonderful explanation which I have tweeted and will pass on to the people for whom I am creating an archive, the Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. Thank you.

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