Cataloguing

Cataloguing is an important aspect of documenting collections. It can:

  • give you greater intellectual control over collections, creating accurate descriptions
  • enable identification of preservation/conservation needs
  • widen access to descriptions and the collections themselves
  • enable you to contribute data to archive networks

Many archives have their own cataloguing guidelines which will give information about that archive's approach and their work leading up to this point. Guidelines may give procedural guidance as well as information about which archival standards are used and how to apply them.

The Archives and Records Association provides a helpful archival standards framework, including description and metadata content standards. This includes the international standards developed by the International Council on Archives.

Whether you are using an electronic cataloguing system or not, it is always advisable to follow standards and you can even preserve the structure of an archival hierarchy using tools like MS Word or Excel.

Electronic cataloguing systems

There are many different tools which can be used to record collections information. If you decide to invest in an off the shelf software package, there are some things worth considering:

  • The existing shape of your data: do you need to ingest existing content or are you starting from scratch?
  • Finance: do you have an ongoing budget for this - paying for licences plus the initial start up costs? If no, open source and low-cost solutions do exist
  • IT support: do you have access to technical support? Will you need to install and manage software independently? Do you have adequate tools - PCs, network, internet connection etc
  • Standards: which sector standards do you need to use, i.e. archives or archives plus museums/library standards?
  • Usability: do you need a user interface as well as a back office to manage collections data?
  • Functionality: what, if any, additional features do you want a new service to have? 
    - an enquiry management module
    - capture digital objects and/or metadata
    - capture accessions data 
    - ability to contribute data to archive networks easily

What tools are there to help you decide? The National Archives cannot endorse particular products but can point you to some helpful sources of information:

  • A 2009 report written by Lisa Spiro for the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), on archival management tools
  • Archival Software, a wiki which builds on the above report, providing a detailed features matrices of each system and which was current at the time, plus user feedback
  • A new tool launched by Collections Trust which allows you to compare the features of leading Collections Management Systems over more than 40 different criteria
  • Depending on what type of archives service you are, the Community Archives website also provides helpful cataloguing guidelines
  • Each year the UK Archives Discovery network holds a forum which includes talks from archives using various cataloguing software.

Depending on the collections you manage, it may not be appropriate or viable for you to invest in a cataloguing system. In this case, you can read our draft guidance Archive Principles and Practice: an introduction to archives for non-archivists which gives some alternative options.

More information and practical advice is available in our case studies section and in our research reports.

Archive Principles and Practice: an introduction to archives for non-archivists (PDF, 0.29Mb)

Contributing to archives networks and other resources

One of the ways in which you can widen access to your collections is contributing to archives networks. These networks bring disparate collections information together for exploration online and are very often at the forefront of resource discovery innovation. These networks may have different audiences and outreach tools which both you and your users can benefit from.

The National Archives provides guidance on contributing to its own information resources which include the National Register of Archives (NRA) and the Manorial Documents Register (MDR). There are also other national, regional and thematic based networks including Archives Hub, AIM25, Archives Wales, Genesis, Janus and the Scottish Archives Network.

The NRA and the MDR will be replaced in Summer 2014. The content is being made available via Discovery, which will provide a single point of online access to catalogue and organisational data from across the archive sector.

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