The Taking Account of our Past project is based on cataloguing the Smith, Son and Wilkie chartered accountants papers.

But what is cataloguing and why do we do it?

The term ‘cataloguing’ covers a range of activities designed to make a collection of records deemed important enough for long term preservation more accessible to the public.


The first step in the cataloguing process is to assess what material is in the collection and produce a box-list. A box-list is exactly what it sounds like – a list of each box in the collection and the records it contains with a brief physical description of each item and rough covering dates.


The box-list allows the archivist to get a feel for the collection and to start thinking about the arrangement of the records. Ideally, records should be kept in their original order as they were used by their parent organisation but often the original order is not clear or has been lost through their transition into the repository. Record arrangement can be physical or intellectual. Physical arrangement involves moving records within the boxes into a logical order but this is not always appropriate as the size and nature of the records may prevent them being physically ordered. Intellectual arrangement is where the box-list is used to create a virtual arrangement of the records within the collection but without physically moving each item. Arrangement of the records is necessary to allow users to logically explore the collection and to assist the archivist in describing the collection.


Description of the collection starts at the fonds level also known as the collection level. The fonds level is notoriously difficult to explain but effectively is the top level of the description and it includes all the documents in any format that were created or accumulated by the person, family or corporate body in the course of their activities. Description is essential to explain the relationships between the records in the collection and to provide information on their content and context. The description of the collection is the main access point for users so it needs to contain all the information they need to understand the collection as a whole and the nature of each item within the collection.

There are standards in place to ensure all archive descriptions used with catalogues contain the relevant information. The most commonly used standard is called ISAD(G) and that stands for International Standard for Archive Description (General). ISAD(G) requires specific information to be entered in the description at each level of the catalogue:

  • Reference code
  • Title
  • Creator
  • Date
  • Extent of the unit of description (physical amount e.g. volume, 2 files)
  • Level of description

The majority of archive repositories in the UK use the hierarchical system of cataloguing, which looks a bit like a tree with the fonds or collection level at the top followed by the series level and then file level down to individual item level.

In an archive catalogue, each of these levels needs a description that is specific to its level so information is not repeated through the various levels of the catalogue. When creating catalogue, the archivist will start from the most general level of description (fonds/collection level) and work through all the relevant levels to get to the most specific level of description (item level).

Administrative or Biographical History

The arrangement of the collection is crucial to allow the archivist to work out where the different levels need to be to create a clear and logical catalogue. Once the collection has been catalogued and the descriptions have been written at each level, the archivist can use this information and further research to put together the Administration or Biographical History of the parent organisation or family. The Admin History is an important element of the catalogue as it helps to understand how and why the records in the collection were created and put them in context. There are a number of areas that will be covered by the Admin History including:

  • The dates the organisation was founded and if relevant when they ceased operations
  • What their main function and purpose was as an organisation
  • Details of any predecessor of successor organisations
  • Relationships with other organisations or administrative units
  • Changes in name of the organisation

Authority Records

Alongside cataloguing, authority records need to be created for any relevant people, places, organisations and businesses, subjects etc. The type of authority records used will depend on the guidelines of individual repositories but there is a standard called ISAAR (CPF), which stands for Internal Standard Archival Authority record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families. The purpose of authority records are to describe in a standardised manner a corporate body, person or family and for this description to be used within the archive catalogue. Authority records can be used to document relationships between record creators and also allow controlled access points to the collection as they are similar to keywords or tags.

Authority Records also use the standardised form of name in line with the Rules for the Construction of Personal, Place and Corporate Names. The way a name is written may seem trivial but if various versions of a name are used within a catalogue, the ease of access is reduced and some relevant records may be missed altogether. Using the standardised version of a name also means catalogues from different repositories should be using the same terms to improve searching and access for the user.


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