4. Cataloguing

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Courtesy of the Modern Records Centre, reference: MSS.328/c/12/4/1091
The Nature of Archival Description
Cataloguing in Practice
Cataloguing Practicalities

There would be little point in arranging your archive without then providing a description of it. However much time and expertise there is available, making a descriptive list of the archival holdings is essential. The ideal archival description should provide a brief but accurate representation of the archives so that anyone using them (archivist, curator, colleague, volunteer or researcher) can discover if a document exists, locate it within the collection, and understand its context.

Cataloguing gives you an opportunity to check the contents of collections, identify any documents which are particularly interesting and also any which should not be open for research (e.g. they contain personal or confidential information). For archives open for research, describing what you have and, ideally, making full catalogues available online will enable potential researchers to complete their initial investigations before they visit you. Importantly, it also allows researchers to discover what you don’t hold in your collections, avoiding unnecessary enquiries, and saving your time as well as theirs.

Ideally, every item within a collection would be catalogued individually. However, cataloguing can be a very time consuming process, and many established archives have significant backlogs of material waiting to be catalogued, amounting to many years of staff time. For this reason, listing at a box level, or even at a collection level, is preferable to nothing, and at least gives an indication of the what you hold, allowing you to fill in the gaps at a later date. Such a description has similarities to creating an Inventory in the Spectrum standards.

Listing at box level gives you a good overview of the contents of a collection:

  • It allows you to make a quick assessment of any major issues with the condition of the material or any special storage needed because of its format (e.g. photographs, textiles, audio-visual or digital material).
  • It allows you to identify material that might be particularly significant for research and it enables you to spot any material that might need special access restrictions.
  • When material is listed, it allows you to take physical and intellectual control of it – it is like stock control in a shop.
  • When you provide access, it safeguards material, as you know what you have and what you are making available to researchers.

A Collection Level Description gives a short, holistic overview of the collection, recording the creator, covering dates and size of the collection, key individuals, organisations, companies, events and places, and noting particularly significant documents or themes. Such a description can be based on the information compiled during the Accessions process, and augmented as time allows. Such a description is indicative of the general nature and contents of the collection, but does not allow you to identify or locate individual documents for researchers without further work.

The Nature of Archival Description

The depth and the detail of archival description can vary widely, from detailed calendars recording individual letters, to summary box-lists recording little more than the number of the box on the shelf and a brief title, for example, ‘Newsletters’. To provide more detailed and generally more helpful description, it is necessary to consider all the archive in context.

Context is among the features distinguishing archives from books, an otherwise similar information source. In an archive each unit is part of a linked relationship based on its origination, a hierarchy that is based on the processes of creation and use. The recognition of this hierarchy is built into the process of arrangement and description. It begins with the whole and then proceeds to the sub-components of the whole, then sub-components of sub-components, down in some cases to individual items. In general you should proceed from the central to the peripheral, then the general to specific and the earlier to later. The creation of a hierarchical catalogue differs from museum practice where the Object number assigned during Accessioning, and perhaps a sub-number, are the usual final references used for locating objects.

ISAD(G) – International Standard of Archival Description (General)

Description may seem rather daunting. However, there is an excellent standard for archival description, the International Standard of Archival Description (General), or ISAD(G) for short. It is the accepted professional standard but you do not need to be a professional to use it. ISAD(G) is quite simple and following its principles will ensure a good description of your collection at whatever degree of detail you are able to provide. ISAD(G) is flexible and the quantity of information matters less than its quality.

ISAD(G) is freely available online at https://www.ica.org/sites/default/files/CBPS_2000_Guidelines_ISAD%28G%29_Second-edition_EN.pdf

For museum staff familiar with Spectrum, there is a mapping of Spectrum units of description against their ISAD(G) equivalents available at https://collectionstrust.org.uk/resource/mapping-of-isadg-to-spectrum-5-0/

Elements of Description

Describing archives is a matter of deciding what it is about the documents that needs to be recorded. ISAD(G) breaks down the description of any archival unit into its logical parts. It analyses these parts and highlights the elements that may be present. These elements are grouped into a number of “Areas” as follows:


  • Reference code(s)               
  • Title  
  • Creator              
  • Date(s) of creation                
  • Extent and medium of the unit of description (quantity, bulk, or size)
  • Level of description              


  • Name of creator(s)             
  • Administrative / Biographical history   
  • Archival history               
  • Immediate source of acquisition or transfer


  • Scope and content [often called Description in practice]        
  • Appraisal, destruction and scheduling information      
  • Accruals                 
  • System of arrangement            


  • Conditions governing access            
  • Conditions governing reproduction         
  • Language/scripts of material        
  • Physical characteristics and technical requirements    
  • Finding aids             


  • Existence and location of originals       
  • Existence and location of copies    
  • Related units of description
  • Publication note



  • Archivist’s Note
  • Rules or Conventions
  • Date(s) of descriptions

These elements do not necessarily need be presented in a particular order, or separated into different fields, and they do not need be made explicit, particularly in typed or word-processed catalogues. Moreover, not all the elements are essential. In practice, archivists do tend to use the ISAD(G) order and separate out the elements in accordance with it. The areas and elements can provide the structure for a catalogue database, and are intrinsically built into some of the available software systems (see the section on Cataloguing Practicalities below).

Essential elements

The six elements which are considered essential to archival description are given in the ISAD(G) Identity Statement Area. They are:


Any description should include a reference, often in the form of a code but it can be a name, which is a unique identifier for the unit being described. The reference should not only provide a unique identifier but is usually the principal way in which the hierarchical organisation of the arrangement is made clear.

Equivalent to Object number in Spectrum.


Unlike books, archival resources generally do not have given titles, and when they do, they can be misleading or inadequate. Archivists therefore usually supply titles, composing titles that uniquely and clearly identify the resource. This is particularly important for electronic descriptions which are being searched, rather than being browsed.

Equivalent to Title in Spectrum.


Record the name and life-dates of the person or organisation predominantly responsible for the creation and assembly of the material. Generally this will only need to be recorded once in relation to the whole collection or archive group.

Equivalent to Object production organisation/people/person in Spectrum.

Date of creation

These are the dates when the documents in the unit being described were originally created or the date that an event or image was captured.

Equivalent to Date – earliest/single, Date – earliest/single certainty, Date – earliest/single qualifier, Date – latest, Date – latest certainty, Date – latest qualifier, Date – period and Date text in Spectrum.

Extent of the unit of description

This should be given in the most meaningful way; for example, five boxes, or two feet or 1 file.  In many cases this is only given once for the whole collection or archive group.

Equivalent to Number of Objects and Physical description in Spectrum.

Level of description

This is the most complex area for non-professionals to understand but it essential to understanding how to keep archives.

Equivalent to Record type in Spectrum.

Levels of Description

The idea of hierarchical relationship is key to understanding the archives and the connections between material.Virtually every archive collection will be hierarchical and multi-level. This is a key difference between archival and museum practice.

ISAD(G), therefore, breaks down description into levels. There are preferred terms for the levels, with technical definitions. These are useful in thinking about the relationships within archives but very few collections will follow such a pattern precisely.

Collection  [sometimes called a Fonds]

The whole of the records created and/or accumulated and used by a particular person, family or corporate body in the course of the creator’s activities and functions, e.g. Isle of Axholme Light Railway; Cyclists’ Touring Club; Frederick Lanchester.

[All but the smallest organisations will, therefore, have more than one Collection in their custody, and is better to describe their entire holdings as Collections in the plural rather than Collection in the singular, in order to avoid confusion.]

Section [sometimes called a Sub-Fonds]

A sub-division of a Collection containing a body of related documents, corresponding to sub-divisions in the originating agency or to major chronological, functional or similar groupings of the material itself, e.g. Personnel.


Documents arranged in accordance with a filing system or maintained as a unit because they result from the same accumulation or activity; have a particular form; or because of another reason arising out of their creation, receipt or use, e.g. Finance Committee Minutes; Plans.


An organised unit of documents grouped together either for use by the creator or in the process of archival arrangement, because they relate to the same subject, activity or transaction, e.g. Correspondence 1952-1984. [This level can sometimes be confusing as an intellectual File does not have to be a physical paper file; it can also be a volume or a group of loose items.]


the smallest intellectually indivisible (not necessarily physically indivisible) archival unit, e.g., a letter, report, photograph, recording.

These levels are flexible.  Each of the higher levels can have their own sub-levels: Sub-Sections and Sub-Series are common in descriptions of complex organisations.  But some collections or archive groups are not that complex. And some material does not require particularly detailed listing.

The levels of description are intellectual rather than physical, but they help with the hierarchical arrangement and numbering of a collection and catalogue. They do not need to be explicitly shown in printed catalogues, but they are a mandatory field in specialist cataloguing systems that are compliant with ISAD(G), and are used for Manage Your Collections and the Archives Hub (see the section on Cataloguing Practicalities below for more on these initiatives).

Multi-level rules

Descriptions composed in strict adherence to these rules can be cumbersome and repetitive, so ISAD(G) offers four rules to govern multi-level description:

  1. Description should pass from the general to the specific.
  2. Information should be relevant to the level of description.
  3. Descriptions should be linked.
  4. Avoid repetition of information given at a higher level.

The fourth rule needs to be clarified. With many descriptive lists being composed and made available online, searching is supplementing, or replacing, browsing from a list of contents. You may, therefore, find it useful to repeat Title information in order to ensure that the Search process picks up all the relevant records and to help minimise navigation through levels of the catalogue.

All the levels from Section to File can have sub-levels but only two levels are absolutely necessary: Collection and Item, and it is in fact possible for a collection to comprise a single Item, in which case only one level of description is required.

NOTE: There is nothing to stop you adding additional fields to your own catalogue that will be useful to you and your users. For instance, you could choose to have fields in which to tag keywords, such as subject (e.g. car make and model, permanent way, road race), format (e.g. plan, photograph), location (e.g. standardised place-name, grid reference) or technical information (e.g. type of transmission, type of component, registration marks), which might not appear in the free text fields. Keywords can be standardised by creating a drop-down menu, or left as free text, depending on your requirements. In a spreadsheet, such fields can be used to sort the data in different ways.

Cataloguing in Practice

The depth and sophistication of description will depend upon the nature of the material, the complexity of the arrangement, the time available, the detail required to make sense of an archival unit, and the expertise available. As this implies, arranging and describing generally proceed together. 

However, arrangement and description can be time-intensive activities. Given the limited staff time that may be available, it may not be possible to arrange material in depth and produce a detailed list as a one-off exercise. In such a situation, they can be approached as a part of ongoing process whereby arrangement and description progress incrementally.

The following examples relate to cataloguing the records of the fictitious Rasen Tractor Club.

From a Collection Level Description to a full Catalogue

1. Collection Level Description

Accession 2017:21   Records of the Rasen Tractor Club and the Rasen Ploughing Show, including minutes, accounts and publicity material, c1938-1967.

2A.  Simple Box List
Box no.TitleDescriptionDatesNotes
1-5Rasen Tractor ClubMembership and administrative recordsc1938-1954Includes some photographs
6-7Rasen Ploughing MatchCorrespondence files1948-1967 
2B.  More detailed Box List
Box no.TitleDescriptionDatesNotes
1Rasen Tractor ClubMembership lists and subscription account booksc1938-1954Early records incomplete
2Rasen Tractor ClubMinutes1941-1954 
3Rasen Tractor ClubCorrespondence files1946-1954 
4Rasen Tractor ClubPublicity material1948-1953Includes photographs of ploughing matches, 1950 & 1952
5Rasen Tractor ClubAccounts1944-1954 
3. Full Catalogue

Here are the possible levels of description for a single item from the contents of Box 4 of the collection which has now been hierarchically catalogued under the collection reference RTC.

References can be wholly numeric, a mixture of numbers and letters, or a mixture of collection name and numbers: whatever best suits your organisation. Different levels of the hierarchy should be separated by a forward slash  /  . 

RTC    Rasen Tractor Club and Rasen Ploughing Match, c1938-1967

RTC/1     Rasen Tractor Club, c1938-1954

RTC/1/7       Publicity, 1948-1953

RTC/1/7/2         Records of the Fourth Ploughing Match, 1950

RTC/1/7/2/12        Photograph of prizewinners, 24 June 1950

A finished printed catalogue would not look like this, as all the items in each sub-level are described together in reference order, and are best displayed in a tabular form such as below:

Contextual Information

The six elements of the Identity Statement Area of ISAD(G) offer the bare bones necessary for description.  But is usually helpful to add some additional information.  Using ISAD(G)’s Context Area and the Content and Structure Area provide for the addition of an Administrative / Biographical history and Scope and content information.

Administrative / Biographical history

This is to provide an account of the creator of the unit of description (whether a person, a family or an organisation) to place the material in context and make it better understood. This is usually found at the collection level but can be useful at lower levels of description too. 

RTC               Records of the Rasen Tractor Club, c1938-1954

The club was formed in the late 1930s by a group of local farmers to compare mechanised agricultural equipment. After the end of World War II a series of ploughing matches were held, which proved popular, and were continued after the Club itself folded in 1954 because of the advanced ages of the surviving members.

Scope and content [Description]

This provides information about the nature of the resource being described. This should allow potential users of the archive to judge the relevance of the unit of description to their research. It may include information about the subject, form or intellectual characteristics of the records being described, the activity that generated the records, or the time period covered.

RTC/7            Publicity, 1948-1953

The publicity records are principally flyers and programmes for the annual ploughing matches, which commenced in 1947. The bulk of the material dates from after 1950, when the separate Ploughing Match Committee was formed.

Following the structure of ISAD(G) to divide out descriptive elements is a useful checklist, a way of ensuring necessary and useful information has been included, making it as easy as possible for anyone else to see what there is at a glance. If your description will be made available online, it is important to remember that a search will often produce results where the context is not obvious. Hence, it can be desirable to repeat some Title information across levels, to aid the searcher.

Cataloguing Practicalities

If you are new to the world of cataloguing you may find it useful by starting with a small discreet collection, perhaps of fairly ephemeral items, and using an old-school pencil and paper approach. A printed pro-forma with the core elements of description will help you to remember the key information to record.

Essential elements 
Level of descriptionThis will be either File or Item if you are describing a single physical object.
ReferenceYou can leave this blank until you have everything in its final order, or if you prefer, assign a temporary number.
Dates of creation 
Additional useful elements 
Scope and contentOften called Description. Use this for descriptive information additional to the Title.
ConservationUse this to record any issue with the item, or work that has already been carried out on it.
Archivist’s noteUse this for any other relevant information. If you use this regularly for similar information, you may need to add another non-essential ISAD(G) element to your proforma.
LocationThis will help you locate the item again when you need to put it in its final arrangement and add the reference.

We would suggest making two copies, of which one should be placed with the document or documents you have described (it can be temporarily attached with a brass or plastic paper clip, or tucked into the file or volume). Keep all the other copies together, and you can later sort these into a meaningful order to create an intellectual arrangement of the collection. In many cases, little re-arrangement will be necessary, but for very miscellaneous collections, a variety of approaches are possible, as long as it makes sense. You can then create additional sheets for higher levels of description to create a hierarchy: the Collection, and any intermediate levels such as Series. When you are happy with your arrangement, you can assign permanent numbers on the sheets. Next you can re-arrange the actual document in the same order, adding the reference numbers in pencil. Finally, you can type up the sheets into a document, spreadsheet or database to create your finished catalogue.

When you are more comfortable with the cataloguing process you can skip this paper phase, or perhaps just use slips of paper with temporary numbers. You can enter your descriptions straight onto computer, and carry out the sorting virtually.

When creating a hierarchical catalogue for a large collection, it is usual to create entries for the higher levels of description first. These then act as a framework for navigating the collection while (or until) the individual items are catalogued. This allows separate people or teams to work on the collection at the same time, slotting their work into the overall structure, and allows work on the different sections to be prioritised if some are more important than others, or required in a shorter timescale.

Catalogues are mostly computer-based these days, as this allows for quick keyword searchers, eases corrections and edits, and enables text to be cut-and-pasted elsewhere – a huge advance on handwritten and typescript catalogues and indexes. The software used will depend on the resources of your organisation and the computer literacy of your staff and volunteers.

At a basic level, a word processed list is legible, can be quickly printed or emailed, and can easily made available online as text within a web page, or as a document or PDF attachment.

A spreadsheet such as Microsoft EXCEL or its equivalents is more sophisticated as rows can be sorted to present the information in different ways, and excerpts can be printed clearly using Mailmerge techniques. More importantly, the information can be automatically exported to more specialised database as your organisation grows. 

Catalogues can also be exported from EXCEL to The National Archives “Discovery” catalogue if you do not have your own on-line catalogue, or wish to share your catalogue more widely. For more information on this free initiative, please see: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/advice-and-guidance/managing-your-collection/manage-your-collections-in-discovery/ .

Specialist archival databases are known as Content Management Systems [CMS]. These can present catalogues on-site, and on-line, in the structured hierarchies described above, and may incorporate the mandatory elements of ISAD(G) to help with the process of cataloguing. A range of commercial systems is available, for which you would need to budget purchase costs and annual support costs. There are also open-source systems if you have sufficient technical knowledge at hand. The National Archives has produced a spreadsheet which compares the features of many of these systems, available at https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/archives/cms-dams-options-for-archives.xls .

The Archives Hub is a JISC-sponsored initiative to provide cross-searchable catalogues from a range of Higher Education, Business and Specialist archives. Catalogues are imported using Encoded Archival Description [EAD] files. The Archives Hub provides an EAD Editor online cataloguing tool, or entries can be exported from an appropriate Content Management System. See https://archiveshub.jisc.ac.uk/ for more information on this initiative.


This process is carried out in parallel with cataloguing, and is essential for locating items described in the finished catalogue.

Boxes should be marked with the running numbers of the contents, so that the correct box in a sequence can be easily identified. There is no standard way of marking references on boxes. Some archives write on the box in pencil, while others use special pens, sticky labels, or even bar codes. The key is for the references to be clearly written and visible at a distance and/or in poor light. It can be very frustrating to try to find an item in a hurry when you can’t read the references on the boxes. If your storage area is well lit, pencil may be sufficient, but consider alternatives if the lighting is poor.

If your boxes have removable lids but part of the base still shows, it is best to write the numbers on the base section as lids can sometimes go astray. You may even consider duplicating the numbering on the inside of the box in case pencil numbering gets rubbed away, or labels dry up and fall off.

Any folders or other packages within boxes should also be marked with the running numbers of their contents, to ease location of items.

Individual items should normally be numbered with a soft pencil (usually 2B), which won’t damage the paper and can be erased if a mistake is made, or references are altered later on. Items should not be numbered with any form of ink as this is permanent, cannot be altered, and chemicals in the ink could affect the document in the long-term. The location of the numbers will depend on house style (front or back of a document; top or bottom of the sheet; inside the front cover of a volume), but should be easy to find and not so small as to be difficult to read. Photographs should always be numbered on the back.

Some formats, such as shiny photographic paper are difficult to mark with pencil, so seek advice on what is best used instead (e.g. chinagraph pencils for the backs of photographs).

Any protective packaging should be numbered as well as the item inside (though this may not be necessary for individual items stored in polyester sleeves if the number can be seen through the packaging, or the item will never be removed from the numbered packaging.

This guidance links to Section 2.3 (Collections Information) of the Archive Service Accreditation Standard.

Note. The core of this document is based on Archives for Beginners – Description, prepared by Tim Powell for the Religious Archives Group, expanded with elements from Archive Principles and Practice: an introduction to archives for non-archivists (available on The National Archives website but currently under revision), both of which are Crown Copyright.

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