The subtle art of cataloguing

I had a steady week testing and refining my structure, which should be ready to show you soon. I’ll give a run down of how it works when you can see it, but today I’m going talk about how archival theory underpins and influences what I am doing.

First comes motivation. Simply put, archives are kept so that they can be used. In 1922,  Hilary Jenkinson wrote that the ­primary duty of the archivist is towards the records, with a secondary duty towards the users. Ignoring the debate of which is the more important, that dual responsibility to both archives and users is the main balancing act for archive professionals. This is similar to the access vs preservation dynamic that I’ve mentioned before, but slightly different as the preservation is not just physical, but intellectual.

So how does this relate to my catalogue? Well, the fundamental purpose of a catalogue is to facilitate use. It does this by being more than just a list of what is there – it is an interpretation of a collection designed with users in mind. An ordered representation of often disordered material. 

Unlike historians who discover and weave together pieces of evidence to construct and present an argument, archivists aim to be neutral gatekeepers facilitating interaction between archives and users. Unfortunately, the act of cataloguing is not a neutral one. By arranging raw material into groups of records (series), placing those within bigger groupings (sub fonds), and selectively describing what is there, archivists pass the collection through a filter to create a finding aid.

Is this a problem? It is if we have a particular agenda, conscious or subconscious, and if we try to make the collection fit what we want to be there. For example we may have a particular interest in labour relations, women’s history or genealogy, but that shouldn’t affect how we describe the collection. Neither can we twist it to fit what users are looking to find. User needs must inform the creation and format of a catalogue, but this mustn’t be at the expense of the integrity of the records.

By “integrity”, I mean what is there and how it fits together. We can’t change the collection to fit our purposes – but neither can we ignore the fact that the whole point of the exercise is to enable use.

Therefore, the art of cataloguing is to find a way to honestly and dispassionately express the chaotic but organic structure of records in way that is helpful and accessible for a whole variety of users.

One important way that integrity can be maintained is by close attention to the original order of the material. The way documents have been filed or stored together by their creator (whether it be an author, a bank or a protest group) provides a lot of the context; the clues as to how it was used and why.

Respecting original order is a useful rule of thumb, but what do you do when the records have already lost it? It’s all very well accessioning a new collection direct from the source but what if you have inherited centuries-worth of records where some have been sorted, shuffled and re-organised over time?

This is the problem with the York civic archives, so in my next post I’ll talk about how I’m attempting to reconcile these principles of archival theory with the reality of a huge disrupted collection. By understanding the theory, I can adapt the methodology from conservative techniques that simply wouldn’t work in this situation to new ones that will; using MPLP and a functional structure to create a catalogue that is honest to the records but ultimately helpful for users.

That is the aim at any rate – do you have any thoughts about the process? Is theory really that important or am I just over-thinking a task that otherwise would be simpler. Could we just write a big list and have a google-type search box? Does it matter to users than archivists can’t ever be neutral? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

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3 thoughts on “The subtle art of cataloguing

  1. Justine
    Thank you for your informative blog, it is very interesting and I very much enjoy reading about your work. You write in a fun but articulate way and I very much look forward to following your progress. Keep up the good work!

  2. This is the first time I’ve read of the archival process in such detail: what informs the process, what the options are, and what difficulties are encountered with particular collections. In the interests of knowing what is in the CYC collection, and how it can best be accessed, might it be worth considering – at a later stage – workshops for prospective users? Workshop content could include case studies of how MPLP and the functional approach can be applied to particular research queries.

    • I think that fact cataloguing is ultimately a subjective and creative process (though founded on theory) might come as a surprise to some people, and one way of ensuring transparency is letting users know what choices have been made and (where possible) why. We probably wouldn’t run workshops on MPLP for users, as it only informs the production of the catalogue, rather than how people use it, but I am very interested in communicating the ideas more widely.

      This blog is obviously an informal and interactive way of doing that, but it will also be incorporated into the catalogue itself. The international standard for archive catalogues, ISAD(G), lists different fields that you either can or must use in your catalogues. In addition to obvious ones like “Creator” or “Covering Dates” there is “System of Arrangement”, which provides a space for the cataloguer to formally record and share not just how the collection has been arranged but also, if they choose, the reasons behind it. If used, this will usually be found in the top-most or “fonds” level description – where the whole of the collection is summarised.

      When we launch the catalogue, hopefully at the end of next year, then we will create different resources and activities to show people how best to use it for research queries. In addition to the standard digital text-based catalogue, we have started to look at other ways of expressing its structure such as visually. However, it’s all early days yet so thank-you very much for your comment and watch this space!

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