Expert Researcher Series: Inside Catalogue Structures

I blame google! That one little search box has become so ubiquitous that we expect it everywhere, and to reward us immediately with the right answers. Except… remember all those times – with increasing frustration – you’ve to click on to page 4 of the search results with no success? Well, you might on occasion find yourself in a similar position in an archives catalogue (Tip 1: Try adding info into fewer search fields. Just the keyword field if possible. Despite the number of options, less is often more in search). Although standards exist to try and ensure that archives are described in broadly the same terms everywhere, collections that have been processed by different professionals over potentially different decades may well have slight differences, and that’s before you take into account institutional quirks!

Plus even if you hit gold on your first search, how do you know there isn’t an equally relevant stash of material you might be interested in (yes, I know, the Related Material field, see Part One!) but might not be related to the material you’re looking at (ha, gotcha!)? A basic understanding of how an archivist structures an archive catalogue can help you browse and discover new material. The sector is trying to make this more obvious via linked data, indeed you may have noticed tags starting to appear at the bottom of online catalogues that link to collections with a common subject/person/theme on some of the online portals. There’s an awful lot of work to be done to make all existing catalogues compatible with this, so being able to navigate a catalogue yourself is still a useful skill!

You might find it helpful, as I do, to imagine archive catalogues like family trees, although if they are displayed as a ‘tree’ they more usually look like computer file system trees. The broadest descriptions are at the top and the most specific at the bottom, or in our catalogue the broadest on the left and most specific on the right. The broadest description is the collection level description, in the trade we often call it the fonds record (it’s French but if you ever see it bandied about think: collection, as that’s broadly what it is). This record should be the broadest descriptor and encompass everything underneath it, from subject content to included formats.

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If you have access to an extract of a tree, you can often navigate up to the top and see if the ‘siblings’ of the records you were looking at are helpful, as they will contain similar levels of description. They are known as Series in catalogues, and irrespective of containing multiple records, may well be on a similar or related theme, as we can see by the numerous committees in the example. This is where browsing is most helpful, take this example from West Yorkshire:

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So if your results landed you in KMT18/12/2/13 Huddersfield Council Concerts Committee, you might not realise, until you get to this view of the catalogue that it might be worth looking in KMT18/12/2/3 Huddersfield Arts Committee, or to see if Lindley or Almondbury have an Arts Committee. Browsing has now opened up three other possible research avenues you may have not considered.

If you know a particular form of words is in use this might help you find it in other parts of the catalogue or even other archive catalogues. If you’re researching death rituals and have been searching for cemetery records, then KMT18/12/2/8 Burial Grounds Committee probably wouldn’t have come up, but you can try your search again with burial grounds to see if it brings new results. So jumping into search can be great if you have a specific query in mind. But if you want to widen your research net, or you’re struggling to bring up what you need through search, browsing a catalogue can often be worth a go!

Expert Researcher Series: The ‘Related Material’ field

Welcome to the Expert Researcher series. This is the first in a series of blog posts designed to clue you in on some of the parts of the archive catalogue you may not have paid much attention to before and how they can help you in your research. Whether you’re a budding family historian or a PhD student with a looming deadline, hopefully you’ll get something from this article. Requests are welcome! Whether you’d like to know what a particular catalogue field means, or which bit of the catalogue to look in to find a particular piece of information, just let us know, and we’ll do our best to help.

When I talk about ‘fields’ I’m talking about the fields of a database in our collections management software (we use CALM if you’re interested). There are 26 fields of data in the ISAD (International Standard for Archival Description) standard, although only five of these are ‘mandatory’ for a basic catalogue. Title, Creator, Date, Extent and Description. This is what you’ll find in all basic catalogues or finding aids. We’ll often complete lots of the other fields too, during the course of our cataloguing. This is to prevent all the information remaining in the head of the Archivist and inaccessible to colleagues or other researchers. As I approach the end of cataloguing the University collection, I am now trying to come up with ways to splurge (it’s the right word, trust me) all the information I’ve picked up over two and a half years poking about in the records into print as much as possible. Yet if it’s not in the description field, only a small number of you may ever notice it, and whilst it may or may not show up on an online catalogue or printed list, if you know the information potentially exists, you may end up asking your local, friendly Archivist to check their system for it. This is a good thing.

So… the Related Material field. This is where we can refer to other collections with a link to the one we are cataloguing. Also known as doing some of the legwork of your research so you don’t have to! Archives are collected on the basis of provenance rather than by subject. So we hold the records of the University of Huddersfield that were created and used here. But we may hold records sent from other institutions and vice versa. They will remain with that institution and we’d link to them. Or there may be close subject links with other collections. For example, we hold the records of JH Whitley, local MP and Speaker of the House of Commons, and related material might include links to the collections at the Houses of Parliament, to other local contemporary MPs at other local archives or universities. The link should also mention the level of detail the catalogue goes to, so Collection Name, University of Whatever (fonds) would mean a collection level description exists, whilst Collection Name, Name of Business (item) would mean each item in that collection has been catalogued. See this in action in the Related Material field of the University of Huddersfield collection: http://heritagequay.org/archives/hud*/?view=item Maybe it’s one of those things that you’ve just never noticed before, but here it is again in the Lister collection at our neighbours, West Yorkshire Archives: http://catalogue.wyjs.org.uk/Record.aspx?src=CalmView.Catalog&id=CC00001

Knowing if there is any information in the Related Material field can help to kick start your research, by giving you links to other collections meaning you don’t have to start from scratch. Depending on the ways catalogues are displayed, this field might also contain links to articles written on collections or mini bibliographies the Archivist has used in cataloguing the collection. Strictly speaking, this belongs in the Publication Note field, but Related Material sometimes stands in for it when a catalogue is put online. And if the catalogue you’re looking at has no Related Material field, or doesn’t display this in the online catalogue, remember you can always ask your friendly searchroom staff or Archivist to check for you!

Next Time: Catalogue structure – What exactly is a fond anyway?