Step 4: Cataloguing and preparation of records

Information on statutory obligations

It is the responsibility of all organisations responsible for public records, as defined by the Public Records Act 1958 (c. 51), to transfer records for permanent preservation, under the guidance and supervision of the Keeper of Public Records.  This covers all administrative and departmental records belonging to His Majesty, held in any format, including paper, digital, audio, film or model format.

These obligations originate in section 3(2) of the Public Records Act 1958 (c. 51). See The National Archives’ Legislation and regulations pages for further information.

Cataloguing and preparation is the process of preparing records for transfer for permanent preservation.

For paper and other physical records, cataloguing and preparation includes creating descriptions and physically preparing the files for transfer which must be completed in accordance with The National Archives’ guidelines – it is a necessary part of ensuring the long-term survival and preservation of the records.

The process applies equally to bodies that transfer to a place of deposit. Bear in mind that places of deposit will have their own cataloguing and preparation standards and conventions which may differ from those at The National Archives. Therefore bodies which transfer to places of deposit should consult the places of deposit on the most appropriate descriptions and preparation required.

Cataloguing records selected for transfer

Cataloguing is the process of writing a description for the records that you are transferring. The records can be searched later using descriptions and titles within catalogues.

Departments transferring records to The National Archives must catalogue or list the selected records according to The National Archives’ defined cataloguing principles and standards. The National Archives’ catalogue – Discovery – has seven levels available for the description of records. These are Department, Division, Series, Subseries, Subsubseries, Piece and Item. Cataloguing a record according to this system allows the generation of a unique record reference number.

See the below topics for further information or, alternatively, you can access high-level guidance covering the first three levels of catalogue entries: Guidance on Providing Information About Your Records (PDF 0.4Mb) or comprehensive guidance covering all levels of catalogue entries and more: Guide to cataloguing paper records for transfer to The National Archives (PDF, 0.9Mb).

Guiding principles and categories for cataloguing records

The National Archives looks for the following five qualities in the cataloguing data produced by government departments, and most of the points in the following sections of this guidance relate to these qualities. The qualities are:

Accuracy of the data

So that incorrect and false information does not appear on The National Archives’ catalogue, Discovery.

Understandability of the data

So that a researcher (who is not always an expert) can understand the data fairly easily, without having to look things up elsewhere.

Simplicity of the data

So that government departments do not waste their time and resources on unnecessary detail, and the researcher can quickly decide if a record might be of interest or not.

Reasonable consistency of the data

The data within a series should be reasonably consistent when the records are the same or similar, but consistency should not be pursued at the expense of accuracy, understandability and simplicity.

Correct use of the template

The data is put in The National Archives’ cataloguing template in the correct fields and using the correct formats, so that it can be successfully loaded onto Discovery.

The National Archives’ catalogue and referencing system

The National Archives’ catalogue – Discovery – has seven levels available for the description of records.

Three of the levels are mandatory for every record: Department, Series and Piece. The other levels are ‘supplementary’ (they are useful and even necessary on certain defined occasions, but are often not required and can even be detrimental to use).

Of the three mandatory levels, two – Department and Series – are written by transferring departments with the support and guidance of cataloguing staff at The National Archives.

Most of the time departmental cataloguers will only need to use Piece level – occasionally they may have to use Subseries level for subsidiary series or Item level for parts of pieces.

Each of the levels is described in the table below.

LevelName of levelPurposeTypeTemplate code
1DepartmentProvides researchers with a summary of a government department, executive agency or other government body (such as Home Office or Ministry of Defence) and the records it created, accumulated or inherited.Mandatory

Written by transferring departments with the support and guidance of cataloguing staff at The National Archives
2DivisionProvides information about a directorate or other high-level business unit within a government body, or business activities relating to particular functions (for example, Establishment Division, Prisons Division).

Used only when the division has created a number of series grouped together on The National Archives’ catalogue.

Written by transferring departments with the support and guidance of cataloguing staff at The National Archives
Not on template
3SeriesProvides information about a particular set of records produced by a department, agency or division with a common history and purpose.Mandatory

Written by government departments with amendments suggested by The National Archives
4SubseriesProvides information about subsidiary series or groups of records within the departments’ series.

Used only when it is desirable to make clear the major distinct groupings of records within the series.

Written by government departments

Consult with the Transfer Adviser before using
5SubsubseriesProvides information about a group of records within a subseries grouping.

Used rarely, only when it is necessary to make clear the minor groupings of records, at a lower level than subseries.

Written by government departments

Used only in exceptional circumstances
6PieceProvides information about an individual record, for example, a file, a report or a volume.Mandatory

Written by government departments
7ItemProvides information about separate parts of a piece:
- when the piece has been split into two or more parts because of its thickness;
- when an extract has been made which is closed because of its sensitivity;
- when it is useful to describe individual reports or subfiles within a piece.

Written by government departments

Preparing to catalogue records

Going wrong at an early stage of the cataloguing process and having to redo work at a later stage can be extremely time-consuming. To produce better results, and to save time and effort, time should be spent:

  • understanding this cataloguing guidance and the requirements of the template;
  • undertaking brief preparation work prior to cataloguing;
  • consulting with Transfer Advisers over potential problems or the need for ‘tailored’ guidance for specific records;
  • checking work regularly and thoroughly.

Understanding your records

It is always advisable to undertake brief preparatory work in order to have a clear idea of the cataloguing task.

Firstly, survey the records you will catalogue.

Cataloguing survey checklist

  • Check that all the records are present. If there are more records to transfer into the same series in the near future, it is usually advisable to wait and catalogue all the records together.
  • Ensure that the record selection has been approved by your Transfer Advisor at The National Archives.
  • Check records (especially copies of reports) do not duplicate ones already held at The National Archives.
  • Confirm with your Transfer Advisor that the records are being put into the right series, and that a new series has been created if necessary.
  • Check whether the records have been reviewed for sensitivity, and whether there are closure or retention issues which require approval by the Advisory Council on National Records and Archives.

Preparing to begin cataloguing

Secondly, ensure you are ready to begin cataloguing.

Cataloguers should consult the Transfer Adviser before commencing cataloguing work about any major issues on which there is any uncertainty, for example, the starting piece number, most suitable order, use of subseries, level of detail required, or whether to continue in the same style as an earlier part of The National Archives’ catalogue, Discovery. In the case of large collections of case files and maps, agreeing an appropriate format at the start is vital (see section 7).

Inexperienced cataloguers, or cataloguers dealing with records of a type they are unfamiliar with, should list just a few records at first, and then submit this sample to the Transfer Adviser to agree their proposed approach and applicable standards.

If necessary, and if resources allow, ‘tailored’ guidance can be produced by The National Archives for specific records.

Cataloguing preparation checklist

  • Read any background information on the series, including the information on The National Archives’ catalogue, Discovery. This will help in understanding the structure of the series and any technical language which may need to be explained.
  • If more records are being added to an existing series, check how earlier parts of the series were catalogued on Discovery. This can make future cataloguing easier, as well as ensuring consistency. However, do not imitate earlier cataloguing if it has been done poorly or does not conform to modern standards.
  • Check the piece number the first record should have – particularly important if the series is shared with another government department. If in doubt check with the Transfer Adviser.
  • If subseries have been used before, and it is agreed with the Transfer Adviser that this should continue, ask for a list of the subseries and their numbers, as already used on the catalogue.

Final stages

When the listing is finished, the cataloguer or a colleague should proofread it carefully for accuracy, understandability, consistency and spelling. The listing should conform to the editorial and technical guidelines provided in this document.

Generating The National Archives’ unique record reference number

Every record transferred to The National Archives has a unique three part reference code based on the three mandatory levels of description.

For example, the reference code CM 6/57 consists of the department code, CM; the series number, 6; and the piece number, 57. The next piece is CM 6/58. An item has an additional item number after the piece number, for example: CM 6/57/1

  • CM is the department code for ‘Property Service Agency’ (PSA)
  • CM 6 is the series number for the ‘registered files of the PSA Directorate of Defence Services’
  • CM 6/57 is the relevant piece number for one of these files
  • CM 6/57/1 is the item number of part of that file

These references would be written in the template as follows:


Assigning piece numbers and associated information

The first step in cataloguing a set of records within a series is to ensure they are arranged in a sensible, logical order. Once this has been done piece numbers can be assigned to each record. The cataloguer then supplies the following information for each piece:

Piece number information checklist

  • its covering dates;
  • a brief summary of its subject matter, known as scope/content;
  • its Former reference;
  • its public access conditions, if it varies from the normal status of open;
  • if appropriate, certain additional information contained in the Note field, Comments field, and Related digital material field.

Completing The National Archives cataloguing template

For guidance on how to complete The National Archives cataloguing template see our comprehensive Guide to cataloguing physical records for transfer to The National Archives (PDF, 0.9Mb).

Preparing physical records for transfer

Preparation of paper records is the process of physically preparing records for transfer to The National Archives or place of deposit.

Records transferred to The National Archives have been identified as being of high value and worthy of permanent preservation and therefore the primary aim of careful physical preparation of the records is to ensure that they remain intact and usable for as long as possible.

This guidance covers physically preparing records for transfer, including printing and preparing labels and other materials required for transfer.

For further guidance on preparing particular formats for transfer, read our comprehensive Guide to preparing paper and other physical records for transfer to The National Archives (PDF, 2.00Mb).

Sourcing tools and archival supplies

To prepare records for transfer to The National Archives, you will need essential tools and archival supplies. Particular materials may need to be sourced either from The National Archives or suppliers, or prepared by the transferring body. All materials used for the preparation or packing of records (including boxes, maps or banner bags) must meet The National Archives’ standards. A high standard of materials is vital in preserving records.

Dummy cards and warning tape for closed extracts

The National Archives can supply the following material to transferring bodies:

  • dummy cards for whole pieces and extracts;
  • yellow and black warning tape for closed extracts.

To procure these items, please complete a Stationery order form (DOCX, 0.05Mb) and email it to the Transfers team at

Other supplies and third party suppliers

Any other preparation materials or tools may be obtained from third parties, as long as they meet the criteria for approval by The National Archives. Further requirements for particular types of tools and archival supplies is included in our comprehensive Guide to preparing paper and other physical records for transfer to The National Archives (PDF, 2.00Mb). This includes:

  • archival boxes
  • polyester sleeves
  • acid free envelopes
  • four-flap folders
  • nylon ended treasury tags
  • cotton and linen tape
  • chinagraph and HB pencils
  • artist’s palette knives
  • single hole punches
  • gloves

Please consult with the Transfer Team at before using or ordering any materials for the first time or if you are unsure if materials would meet the criteria to ensure they meet The National Archives’ standards.

Sourcing labels and stickers

Transferring bodies must organise the preparation and printing of their own labels and stickers including:

  • box reference labels (departmental lettercode, series number and piece and item numbers);
  • closure labels (‘Closed until’ and ‘Closed until various dates up to’);
  • warning stickers for distressing photographs.

Please note boxes must be labelled in line with The National Archives guidance to be transferred.

The guidance and templates below have been produced to enable public record bodies and their suppliers to create and print the necessary labels for applying to archival boxes and records in line with The National Archives wider guidance on Preparing records for transfer to The National Archives.

Label stationery and printing requirements

Labels must be printed on appropriate label sheets for example:

  • Avery Laser Mini Labels 45.7 x 25.4mm White L7654-25
  • Avery Ultragrip Laser Label 63.5×38.1mm White L7160-100
  • Avery Laser Labels 38.1×21.2 L7651H

Label sheets are widely available in various sizes and quantities from a range of suppliers including Avery Design and Print; Banner; Q-Connect and others.

Labels can be printed on standard Multi-Function Devices. Select the following settings:

  • Paper size: A4 label laser sheet (custom)
  • Scale: 100%

Ensure that label sheets of the correct size for the required label are loaded face down in the multi-purpose tray (not the cassette trays)

Label templates

The National Archives provides the following templates for printing as labels:

The additional labels below can be created with the final template above (L7651) and additional information by editing the label template in Microsoft Office Word or by using label creation software such as the service provided for free by Avery Design and Print:

  • Departmental Letter Code
  • TNA Series number
  • Piece numbers

To use the Avery Design and Print software to prepare these additional labels, complete the following steps:

  1. Choose template: select template number L7651
  2. Choose design: select blank rectangle with rounded corners, landscape orientation
  3. Customise:
    1. From the left-hand side bar:
    2. select Text
    3. select Add text box
    4. set font colour to red (for Letter Code or TNA Series) OR
    5. set font colour to black (for Piece numbers)
    6. select appropriate font size (generally 30 – 32)
    7. enter Letter code or numbers as required
  4. From the right-hand Navigator box:
    1. select Edit All to enter the same information on all labels OR
    2. select Edit One to enter different information on each label
  5. Preview and Print: select Print it Yourself

Preparing paper records for transfer

Our comprehensive Guide to preparing paper and other physical records for transfer to The National Archives (PDF, 2.00Mb) covers all aspects of preparing paper records for transfer, including:

  • Which materials to remove from records prior to transfer
  • How to write the TNA reference code on files of different types
  • When to split, tie up or label files
  • How to prepare specific formats such as loose pages, ring binders, volumes or photographs

Preparing other physical records for transfer

Aside from paper records, a number of other physical records may be selected for transfer and require further preparation.

Video and audio

Consult the Transfer Team about analogue sound recordings, film and video material as these are not archived by The National Archives.

Floppy disks, CDs and microfiche in files

If you identify removable storage media (such as USB sticks, CDs, floppy disks, magnetic tape, microfiche and microfilm) that contains selected public records, please contact the Digital Transfer team at The National Archives. The records will need to transfer within the existing digital transfer workflows.

Seals and other objects

Large seals and other 3D objects require expert preparation advice on a case-by-case basis, so for any of these items please consult the Transfer Team.

Seals within the body of a file

The best protection for seals within the body of a file is the paper surrounding it, which is more forgiving than a polyester sleeve. Therefore, normally seals within the body of a file should be left as they are and not put into polyester sleeves.

Ask the Transfer Team in cases of large embossed seals, pendant seals or seals outside files.

Further guidance and training

The National Archives provides further guidance and training on records management practices through supporting the development of the Section 46 Code of Practice on the Management of Records, the Information Management Assessment toolkit and the GKIM Skills Framework.

The Section 46 Code of Practice on the Management of Records

Section 46 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (c. 36) supports the development and publication of a Code of Practice for the management of records issued, which was last revised by The National Archives in 2021. The latest version can be accessed here: FOI Act Section 46 Code of Practice.

The Code of Practice provides a framework to guide authorities throughout the lifecycle of the records they hold. It sets out the principles of robust information management so that authorities understand their responsibilities and are enabled to discharge them.

Conformity with the records management Code of Practice will be monitored via self-assessment by public authorities using tools provided by The National Archives. Our Section 46 Self-assessment tool is being developed as part of our Information Management Assessment toolkit and is available through our pilot programme. If you would like to join the programme, please contact the Government Help Point at

The guidance in this document relates in particular to the requirements listed below from the Code and covered by the Self-assessment tool.

  • Keeping, finding and using information
    • Authorities should take action to conserve physical records if there are signs of damage according to best practice. Digital information should be subject to the appropriate active digital continuity.
    • Authorities should make reasonable efforts to recover or preserve physical records and digital information that is found to be damaged or unusable, including their technical and contextual information, keeping a record of any action taken.
    • Authorities should make reasonable efforts to recover contextual information for ‘orphaned information’ which they judge to have value, keeping a record of any action taken.
  • Disposition
    • Authorities must decide how to dispose of information that no longer has value. Authorities can dispose of information by destroying it, transferring it to another body or by transferring it to an archive.
    • Authorities must take disposition decisions in line with their policy and the security classification of the information. Disposition decisions must be recorded. Those taking disposition decisions must be properly authorised to do so.
  • Responsibilities where information is shared
    • Where the authority works jointly with another authority, body or contractor, a lead or commissioning authority should be agreed which will remain responsible for ensuring that information is managed in accordance with the Code throughout its life.
    • The authority and its partner authorities, bodies or contractors should set out their responsibilities in an information sharing agreement.This includes where information in separate authorities’ systems is integrated by technical means. The agreement should specify:
      • the obligation to record decisions, particularly in relation to the transfer or destruction of information;
      • obligations under copyright, data protection legislation and FOIA;
      • record management controls and any special requirements for the security and handling of personal information;
      • the ownership of any copyright.
    • Authorities should ensure that information sharing arrangements enable them to comply with the requirements of the PRA or the PRA(NI) where at least one authority is subject to the legislation.

Developing related skills through the Government Knowledge and Information Management (GKIM) Skills Framework

The Government Knowledge and Information Management (GKIM) Skills Framework supports information managers to develop new skills to assist them in identifying and resolving information management issues and ensuring their department is fulfilling its statutory obligations.

The information in this guidance relates most closely to:

  • Applying relevant legislation
  • Strategy and planning
  • Lifecycle
  • Categorisation and taxonomy
  • Collaboration across government and the sector
  • Effective information sharing practices
  • Complying with FOI retention rules in relation to archiving records
  • Complying with the DPA in relation to archiving records
  • Records Management responsibilities
  • Retention and disposition
  • Physical archives
  • Permanent preservation
  • Records lifecycle

Monitoring GKIM Skills development

The dynamic online version of the GKIM Skills Framework tool (Comaea) is provided by the Department for Education and will allow you to:

  • map your progress in developing skills in real time
  • keep a record of your learning and development in the profession
  • discuss your development with your manager
  • understand what you need to do to reach the next attainment level in a particular skill

Comaea allows managers to produce reports detailing the skill gaps in the six job families across their organisation. You can sign up for the dynamic version of the tool by emailing this address.

Related topics

See our Glossary of record selection and transfer terms

Download a Transfer Template (XLSX, 0.03 MB) or Closed Description Template (XLS, 0.03 MB)

View our digital transfer guidance about generating metadata and preparing digital files for transfer

Go to the next step: Planning and arranging delivery of records