From boxes to trees

Tree WKH5206

Victoria Park, Handsworth, December 1895 (from the Warwickshire Photographic Survey, ref WK/H5/206)

Have you ever wondered when you look at our on-line catalogues or use our paper catalogues in the searchroom how archivists decide to arrange a collection? What do we do when we are faced with shelves and shelves of records which may have been randomly boxed together or may have been re-organised several times by the time they reach us?

Well, without going into too much detail about archival theory, there are a couple of key principles which underpin the work of archivists and which differentiates archival cataloguing from that of library cataloguing. Records derive their meaning from the context in which they were created so when arranging a collection of records, archivists aim to preserve this context. To do so, they follow the principles of provenance and original order. The principle of provenance dictates that records created or collected by an organisation, family or individual should be maintained together and not mixed with records created or collected by another organisation, family or individual. The principle of original order dictates that records should be arranged in the order in which they were created and used.

In practice, this means that for each new organisation, family or individual who deposits records in the archive, a new collection is created. However, identifying the original order can be rather more difficult because this has often been lost over time as records pass from one generation to the next, frequently being organised and re-organised before they are deposited in an archive. This is why one of the first things a cataloguing archivist does is to spend time researching the organisation, family or individual and analysing the records to try to work out how the records would have been created and kept so that this can be reflected in the arrangement of the collection.  The aim is to build up a logical arrangement which maintains the context of the records and helps researchers to easily explore the collection via the catalogue.

Why am I telling you about this? Because the arrangement for the records of the Central England Area Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends which I am cataloguing as part of the Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers project and which I have already blogged about here and here, is pretty much ready to go. This means that I’ve worked out how all of the meetings and their records groups in the mind-maps below relate to each other and how I am going to fit them into the catalogue.

Quarterly and Monthly Meeting record groups

Quarterly and Monthly Meetings (in yellow) and their record groups (in green)

Local/Preparative Meetings and their record groups

Local/Preparative Meetings (in yellow) and their record groups (in green)

Catalogues work from the general to the specific so the top level is the collection level record which is where all of the information relating to the collection as a whole goes and under that there are a number of sub-collections, series and sub-series with varying levels of description to guide the researcher to the relevant set of records which are then listed at file or item level. Each level of the catalogue is allocated a number followed by an / to indicate a new level in the catalogue and once catalogued the physical items all end up with a unique number made up of a string of these numbers and oblique strokes. These are the reference numbers which you use to order material you’d like to see and which enable us to locate an item when you request it.

Below the collection level record I have divided the records into three sub-collections: the Quarterly Meeting, the Monthly Meetings and the Preparative/Local Meetings. Working in Excel and using the mind-maps, at series level I added the different Meetings within each sub-collection; within each Meeting, at sub-series level, I added each of the record groups I have found. I then imported the spreadsheet into CALM (Cataloguing, Archives, Libraries and Museums) database which we use for cataloguing. The result is a hierarchy, which archivists affectionately call the tree, like this:

Tree showing the arrangement of records in the Religious Society of Friends collection

Tree or hierarchy showing the arrangement of the Religious Society of Friends records

When you click on the plus signs in the tree, the folders open up so you can see what levels are inside. In the example below, you can see that the minute series for the Central England Area Meeting Membership Committee has the reference SF/2/1/1/3/1 and once I add in the item level records within it, each item will have the reference SF/2/1/1/3/1/1, SF/2/1/1/3/1/2, SF/2/1/1/3/1/3 and so on. The more complex the collection, the more levels there are and the longer the string of numbers is for each item level reference – so this is quite a complex collection!

SF detail

Detail of the tree showing different levels in the catalogue

Because I have spent quite a large portion of the project time researching and planning the arrangement, it means I have a good idea of where everything will go in the catalogue and I feel fairly confident that I won’t need to alter it too much once I start adding in the item level entries. My plan now is to add in basic entries for each of the 750 items in the collection and then go back through them to flesh them out with more detail. That should keep me busy for at least the next few months!

Eleanor (Project Archivist: Birmingham and Warwickshire Quakers)


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