Tag Archives: records management

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)

Reaching milestones in our documentation and cataloguing work

At the end of February, we reached some significant milestones in the documentation work carried out on our museum and archive collections.

Submitted design (No. 15) by G. Knipe of Harrison & Sons.

Stamp Artwork design for the Olympic Games 1948, submitted by G. Knipe of Harrison & Sons Oct. 1947. (POST 150/GVI/11/018) It was one of the five designs selected by the Council of Industrial Design and was held as a reserve for the 2 1/2d stamp. In preparing essays Harrisons were to be told "to make sure that the features of the jumper ... cannot be recognised."

The first milestone reached was the completion of an audit of material contained within the museum collection. What this means is that we have entry and location data for every object inherited by BPMA when it was formed in 2004 and for every object subsequently deposited with us. This includes objects held in our Freeling House repository and in our stores in Debden and at Christie’s.

Documentation of collections is a core part of any museum’s activity. Without details such as provenance, custodial history, physical condition and the terms and conditions relating to deposit, a museum cannot be assured of its responsibility and rights to preserve, display, digitise or even dispose (should the item not meet the museum’s collecting policy) of objects in its custody. Furthermore, precise information about an object’s location in our repository and stores means that we can carry out collections review work more efficiently and better prepare for our forthcoming move from our site here at Freeling House to the new postal museum.

This has been a significant amount of work and has taken seven years to complete. Very few museums have achieved a full audit of their holdings and it means that we can now concentrate our efforts in reviewing object collections, creating descriptive catalogues for the online catalogue and also plan our digitisation programmes accordingly. The completion of this work is due to the hard work and discipline of our museum cataloguers past and present, and we congratulate them all for doing such a great job!

Stamp Artwork, Olympic Games 1948, submitted on 29 July 1948 (POST 150/GVI/11/037)

The second milestone is that we’ve passed the 100,000 mark of records available to view on our online catalogue. We now have 100,703 records published. Our most recently published records include:
King George VI London Olympic Games 1948 stamp artwork
• Uniforms
• Handstamps
• Posters
Photographic stills from Post Office films, c.1969-1986
Finally, at the beginning of each year, we also open files that have been closed for 30 years. You can read in the blog by my colleague Gavin McGuffie how we process these. This year, we’ve opened approximately 100 files and the descriptions of these can be viewed via our online catalogue here.

Martin Devereux – Acting Catalogue Manager