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The cataloguing process

When you have decided on a collection’s arrangement, the next step is to catalogue the collection. An archive catalogue is a 'finding aid' that helps researchers to locate records that may help them in their research. Other finding aids include indexes and box lists.

An archive catalogue is not just a list of what a collection contains. It thoroughly describes a collection and its items and shows how the items are related to each other. A catalogue is a map of the archive that helps a researcher move from a general overview of the collection to a specific item within it.

Levels of a catalogue

Most archive collections are catalogued using a top-down approach known as a hierarchy.

Picture a family tree style diagram separated into different levels. The top level of the tree describes the whole collection. Then, for each level going down, the description gets more and more precise until you reach the entries on the bottom level of the tree. These are the individual items in the collection.

Cataloguing therefore describes an archive collection several times over. This means researchers can focus on the parts of the collection they are most interested in, but can also keep track of how these parts relate to the collection as a whole.

The different levels of a collection are as follows.

Collection level

The top level of the pyramid is the collection level. A collection can be very large, so it is useful for researchers (and you!) to see a summary of its entire contents. We recommend that this summary includes information on:

  • Who created or used the collection
  • When it was created
  • Where it was held
  • How many items there are
  • Topics covered

For example, the collection could contain 10 diaries, 6 scrapbooks, historical research, 20 oral history recordings and 115 photographs of a particular parish, collected by parishioners from the 1960s to the 2000s.

Series level

The next level down is the series level. This is where your arrangement work becomes important. The collection is divided into groupings of related records, using the principles of provenance and original order. Each grouping is known as a series. Each series is given a description, providing information for the researcher.

For example, you may have a collection of photographs and press cuttings of a parish taken by a particular photographer in the 1970s. One series could be the press cuttings, one series could be photographs of buildings taken by this photographer, and one could be their portraits of parishioners.

File level

This is the level which researchers usually ask to study. At file level you describe individual items within each series. For example, an envelope of photographs of a particular building, a folder of typed local history notes, or press cuttings about a particular event. Again, describe the key information for the catalogue entry.

Item level

You can also catalogue down to item level. This is the lowest possible level and describes aspects of an individual item. For example, a photograph from an envelope, or a single page of notes. Cataloguing to item level can take a lot of time and resources, so consider this as a project for volunteers.

You do not always need to catalogue to the full number of levels. For example, some collections may just comprise a few individual items, so file level catalogue entries would not be needed.

Different parts of a collection may require different levels of description: one series catalogued only to file level, and one to item level. This depends on the level of detail each type of item needs – a framed photograph needs fewer levels than a bundle of correspondence.

Why you should catalogue in a hierarchy

In the past, archive collections were often catalogued in great detail, which slowed down the process and limited what could be made available to researchers.

Cataloguing in a hierarchy means you can:

  • Consider your current backlog of collections. If you catalogue these to collection level and make the catalogue entries publicly available, researchers can look at them in some detail as soon as possible. This will stop your storage area filling up with collections that are not being used.
  • Catalogue the lower levels of each collection in more depth once you have the time and resources.
  • Learn more about your collections. For example, you can catalogue a series that consists of files of newspaper cuttings. Then over time a volunteer could catalogue files down to each individual press cutting. This will give you a much broader knowledge of what subjects the collection covers.

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