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Key principles of cataloguing

There are two key principles to consider when you begin arranging a collection. These are provenance and original order.

Provenance tells us where the collection came from, why it was created and how it was used.

Original order tells us how the collection’s creators arranged it.

Provenance and original order protect the contents, structure and background of the collection. They also mean you can prove the collection is authentic and reliable documentary evidence – it is not ‘fake’.


An archive collection’s provenance is the history of its ownership - how they were put together and for what purpose, and its journey over time until it has ended up in your custody. It’s best to avoid putting items together in the catalogue which are from different provenances. Archival catalogues usually include a description of the provenance of the collection.

Provenance can be used to identify:

  • Who created the records
  • How they were used
  • Where they were kept over time
  • How they came to the community archive

These points give the collection context, or a back story, so that researchers are confident that it is an authentic record of a person, organisation or community. Provenance means you can be surer that a collection is ‘the real thing’.

  • When taking in a collection, try to note down who created, received or used the collection. Record the names of any mentioned organisations, individuals, dates and places. This information will be very useful when you come to create a catalogue for the collection.
  • Keep collections of different provenances separate to preserve their context – do not mix collections together! For example, the collection of Wreningham Women’s Institute items should not be mixed with the Wymondham Women’s Institute catalogue, as they are separate organisations.
  • If a part of a collection has no obvious provenance, you should also record that in the catalogue so that researchers are aware. This might affect how useful this part of the collection is to them. For example, a collection of photographs may not be very useful if you do not know who took them, when or why they were taken, or what people or places they show.

Where there is no provenance

If there is no provenance to a collection, it may be best to organise it by subject matter, eg photographs depicting local pubs. You can create ‘artificial’ collections of items without provenance. This is better than creating hundreds of small 'collections' of just one item.

Original order

Items often belong in groups that were put together by the person or organisation that created and used them. Groups of items should be kept in this ‘original order’. This gives the cataloguer - and the researcher – an idea of how the creators used the items in their day-to-day life or work.

If you do not maintain a collection’s original order, you may make it less useful. For example, if a folder of letters is rearranged by author or by subject matter, rather than by how the original user had ordered them, there is a risk of losing the links between each letter. This might make them less useful as a research resource.

Where possible it's best if you arrange items in the order they were originally kept, if this is clear.

You need to look at the records for clues about what the records are and how they were arranged – for example, original titles, reference numbers or dates.

Here's an example of an original order in a collection:

You take in the archive of a locally-run photography club. It is made up of:

  • Annual Reports from 1948-1996
  • Signed meeting minutes from 1947-1989
  • Scrapbooks containing programmes and photographs of events from 1966-1980
  • Lists of members from 1948-1975
  • Newsletters from 1956-1978

Where there is no original order

Sometimes there is no obvious original order to a collection. This is especially true with collections of personal papers, which can be stored more haphazardly than the records of a business or organisation.

If there is no obvious original order, you may have to make a list of all the possible ‘functions’ that a collection had and sort the material according to these functions.

For example, if you hold a local historian’s collection that has been given to you unsorted in bin bags and cardboard boxes, you may want to arrange it into sections relating to the different functions or aspects of their working life: correspondence; research notes; drafts of articles or books; recorded interviews; sketches; photographs and so on.

  • Arranging a collection by function can be tricky. You may wish to seek advice from a professional archivist or the Norfolk Archives Network Forum before you start.
  • If possible, speak to the donor to get a sense of how they used the material, or whether they know how it was used. This can help you work out what functions to assign to each part of the collection.

By the time you have finished working on an arrangement, you should have a list of the sections you have divided the collection into. This will be important when you come to catalogue it.

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