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Cataloguing step-by-step

This is a step-by-step guide to cataloguing a collection, with some examples.

Step 1 - Create a catalogue entry

Use the information in an accession form and box list to draw up a draft collection level catalogue entry. In this entry's description, list what the collection contains and give some information about the creator or creating organisation/person/family.

Give the entry a unique reference. Use the initials of the creator, for example 'HS' for the Helen Smith Collection or 'ML' for the Market Langthwaite Village Archive.

Step 2 - Look for obvious series of material

Go through the collection and make a list of obvious series of material. Series are parts of the collection that belong together or were clearly kept together by the creator.

Step 3 - Arrange by function

If the collection has no obvious existing series, arrange it by function. For example, photographs of village buildings, local history research or correspondence.

Step 4 - Make a list of series

Draft a list of series at 'series level' - the next level down from collection level - and give each series a number. Read more about collection levels.

For example, '1' could be 'Photographs of Market Langthwaite buildings', '2' could be 'Local History Research', and so on. This may be all you need to do initially, depending on the size and scope of the collection.

Step 5 - Add more detail

When your group has the time and resources, you may want to catalogue the collection, (or a part of it) in more detail - down to file or item level.

Here you can subdivide each series down into smaller parts, such as a folder of photographs of the local church, one of the village pubs and one of annual summer fairs. You can then give each file a number.

Step 6 - Map file relationships

Now map out each file's relationship to the whole collection.

For example, the church photos could have the reference: 'ML/1/1: Photographs of St. Andrew's Church, Market'.

This would mean that 'ML: Market Langthwaite Village Archive' would be at the top level, followed by 'ML/1: Photographs of Market Langthwaite buildings' at the next level down, then 'ML/1/1: Photographs of St. Andrew's Church, Market Langthwaite' would be at the bottom level.

Here's another example. The third volume of a series of local history research could be referenced as 'ML/2/3 Market Langthwaite History vol. 3, 1890-1945'.

So 'ML: Market Langthwaite Village Archive' would be the top level. 'ML/2: Local History Research' would be the next level down. The final level would be 'ML/2/3: Market Langthwaite History vol. 3, 1890-1945'.

Step 7 - Fill in the catalogue entries

Once you have a catalogue structure in place, it is time to start filling in the catalogue entries. Read more about catalogue descriptions.

For each entry, fill in the six compulsory fields. For example:

  • Reference number: ML/1/1
  • Title: Photographs of St Andrew's Church, Market Langthwaite
  • Creator: Market Langthwaite Photographic Club (this should be in the collection level catalogue entry)
  • Date(s): 1900s-1960s
  • Extent: 45 photographs
  • Level: File

Although it's not compulsory, It is also useful to have a description field. For example:

  • Description: Black-and-white and colour photographs of the interior and exteriors of St. Andrew's Church, Market Langthwaite, taken between 1900 and 1960 by members of Market Langthwaite Photographic Club. Includes shots of the nave, altar and tower as well as individual and collective shots of gravestones in the churchyard.

Check whether the collection contains sensitive material or personal data. This information should be available from the accession form or the box list.

Make a note in the catalogue entry if access to the material is open or closed. If closed, record the date it was closed and how long it should stay closed for. Any material containing personal information about living people should be marked as closed. A donor may also ask for access to be closed.

Step 8 - Package your collection

Once you have created a catalogue, use a soft pencil (2B) to write the reference number on the top right-hand corner of each record where it can be easily read. Make sure each folder and box are marked with the reference numbers of the records they contain. If the records are closed, add this information and the date they can be opened.

Consider packaging the collection in archive-grade materials. Read more about archive preservation.

Step 9 - Store your collection

Choose where you will store the collection. Keep the items together as much as you can. Make a note of the shelf references and add them to your catalogue. Shelf references are for your use only - don't make these available to the public.