I sometimes describe my job as the art of finding very small needles in a very large haystack. We have over three miles of shelving, most of it tightly packed boxes. Imagine how difficult it could be to find a single item in that amount of stuff. It is only possible because we have “finding aids” in the form of index cards and catalogues. Without our catalogues finding things would be impossible.
Cataloguing archive collections is one of the most important parts of an archivist’s role. While there are general rules for how to approach collections and break them down into separate components, every individual collection is different and has its own arrangement scheme. Whereas a library can follow a commonly used classification system like the Dewey Decimal system, an archive can’t because collections and their contents are too varied. Anything other than a very small collection will normally be split up into various series chosen to fit the contents of the collection. So, for example, a collection of family documents might have separate series for letters, photographs, and other documents. The archive of a large business would have many series: company minutes, personnel records, financial records, marketing material, training material, property records and so on. Once a collection has been arranged into series, the individual items within each series will themselves be arranged. Sometimes there might need to be in-between levels, so for example letters from different family members might each have their own sub-series. Once arranged each item will be given a unique reference which reflects its place within the collection and a catalogue entry wil be created describing that document.
Catalogues used to be typed, and most archives will still have paper catalogues, but increasingly these are being either duplicated or replaced by searchable, digital catalogues. The largest online catalogue in the UK is The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue, which includes descriptions of over 32 million records. Catalogues can usually be searched using various index terms and keywords, although without the resources of Google they are rarely as intuitive as we would like when it comes to searching for specific text. I am afraid “How to search an archive catalogue” would be a series of posts in itself, so I am not going to give any tips here, other than to say that it is often worth looking at the series or “fonds” (the archive term for an entire collection) descriptions to find out more about particular types of records and whether they are likely to be useful. For example, here is the series description for WO372, the National Archives’ indexes to First World War service medals, which explains what they contain and how they can be searched. The “context” box at the bottom of the page makes it possible to browse up and down the various levels of the whole War Office collection.
The catalogue description and search facility make it possible for members of the public to find a particular document that interests them. The reference number given to that document will then point us to the right box and folder and allow us to find it. Thanks to careful numbering and ordering we normally expect to be able to retrieve a single letter from our three miles of shelving in five minutes or less.