Cataloguing archive collections

Our new tool, Manage Your Collections, enables any archive to upload catalogues of their collections to Discovery using a simple MS Excel template. We understand that not everyone using Manage Your Collections will have catalogued before; we hope that the information given here will introduce the basics of archival cataloguing, including some real-world examples of the work involved in cataloguing an archive. We have also included pointers to existing 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

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; here you are describing 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 records, e.g. ‘correspondence’, ‘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.

Before any work can be done inputting catalogue data into a spreadsheet or database, there is often a lot of intellectual work 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 allow for archive catalogues to 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. The Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts (GLAM) have developed guidance for cataloguing literary archives and manuscripts.

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.

RedQuadrant was commissioned to produce guidance looking at the role volunteers can play in archival cataloguing: Guidance for Volunteer Cataloguing in Archives (PDF, 2.0MB).

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.


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


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.