Cataloguing archive collections

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

  • give you greater intellectual control over collections, creating accurate descriptions
  • allow you to identify 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 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. In the UK, we adhere to the best practice cataloguing standard, ISAD(G) developed by the International Council on Archives (ICA). More information about ISAD(G) and further standards developed by the ICA can be found on their website.

Depending on the collections you manage, it may not be appropriate or viable for you to invest in a cataloguing system. For alternative options, you can read our guidance Archive Principles and Practice: an introduction to archives for non-archivists (PDF, 0.29MB).

Our new tool, Manage Your Collections, enables any archive to upload catalogues of their collections to Discovery using a simple MS Excel template. If you have not catalogued before, the information below will introduce you to the basics of archival cataloguing, including some real-world examples of the work involved in cataloguing an archive. We have also included pointers to other guidance.

Introduction to archival cataloguing

The resources listed here give a useful introduction archival cataloguing, why we do it and the benefits it can have in widening access to collections.

How to catalogue

Archive catalogues have a hierarchical structure, which simply means that things are arranged in levels. Catalogues go from the very broad to the narrow, with ‘fonds’ being the broadest and ‘item’ being the narrowest.

The fonds level is the highest level of description in an archive catalogue where you describe the person or institution that created the records. The fonds allows the researcher to get an overview of the entire collection.

The next level is the series. This level of the catalogue relates to a particular activity or type of record, for example ‘correspondence’ or ‘research work’. Lower levels include file and item, although item level descriptions are less common in archive catalogues. Descriptions will be more detailed the further down an archive catalogue you go.

These blog posts detail the archival catalogue hierarchy with some real world examples, including an example of the More Product, Less Processing (MPLP) cataloguing approach.

Understanding a collection

Before you input any catalogue data into a spreadsheet or database, a lot of intellectual work is often undertaken to understand a collection. These blog posts detail the nature of this intellectual work, which includes understanding what you have and how it fits together.


ISAD(G) is the international standard for archival cataloguing produced by the International Council on Archives. Cataloguing according to ISAD(G) ensures your catalogue will adhere to industry best practice and can be more widely shared and utilised by following a uniform approach to description.

These resources below give an overview of ISAD(G) and how you can use the standard to construct an archival catalogue.


Different archives can have slightly different cataloguing needs due to differing record types:

Literary archives and manuscripts

The Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts (GLAM) have developed guidance for cataloguing literary archives and manuscripts.

Community archives

Many people who are not professional archivists create archive catalogues, particularly within community archives. The Community Archives and Heritage Group have developed guidance for those who look after small heritage projects and community archives to catalogue their collections to a level consistent with professional standards.

Volunteer cataloguing in archives

The number of volunteers working in the archive sector is significant and growing. RedQuadrant was commissioned to produce guidance looking at the role volunteers can play in archival cataloguing. Providing case studies and practical advice, the report was produced partly as one of a suite of tools to support archives considering using Manage Your Collections to catalogue collections for upload to Discovery.

Guidance for Volunteer Cataloguing in Archives (PDF, 2.0 MB)

Beyond the Excel template – Encoded Archival Description

Encoded Archival Description (EAD) is an XML standard for encoding archival finding aids and can be used as an alternative means of publishing archival catalogues.

Cataloguing tips

The Archives Hub have produced a useful, bite size list of tips for cataloguing.

Cataloguing example

As archive collections are hierarchical, one challenge in using Excel to catalogue collections can be that the collection looks ‘flat’ in the spreadsheet, lacking the tree view that is more illustrative of what an archive collection looks like when viewed online.

To demonstrate this, below are three images. The first image illustrates how a collection looks once it has been catalogued using the Manage Your Collections Excel template. The second and third images show what the collection looks like in Discovery once it has been uploaded using Manage Your Collections. You can see the more hierarchical view of the fonds and series levels (the second image) and the series and file levels (third image).

Image one: An archive collection can lack the visual hierarchical view in Excel.

Image one: An archive collection can lack the visual hierarchical view in Excel.

Image two: The fonds and series level in Discovery.

Image two: The fonds and series level in Discovery.

Image three: The series and files levels in Discovery.

Image three: The series and files levels in Discovery.