Cataloguing and arrangement, what goes where and why?

You may have been wondering what I’ve been upto for the past six months or so. Well, after having shuffled around a lot of boxes and complied various lists, I got down to the task of arranging and cataloguing the papers for real.

Example documents

There can be thousands of documents in a collection which need to be arranged and catalogued so that researchers can find the information that they need.

So, how hard can that be? Well, firstly my job is to catalogue the papers so that people can find them and use them. Cataloguing also gives each item a unique reference number so that they can be identified and kept secure. We don’t want to lose any do we?

  The papers are stored in boxes on shelves in what is called a “rolling stack” and without a good cataloguing system, all the boxes look the same and nobody would be able to find anything!

The rollong stacks.

The boxes are stored on shelves which can be moved backwards and forwards by turning the handles at the end of the row.

Another, really important consideration is that I have to try and keep the papers, or records as they are called in archive terms, in the original order that they were produced by whoever created them. If I don’t, some of the information about their background, meaning or the context in which they were created may be lost and I could mislead researchers by putting them together in an order which could give them a different meaning. Hmm, tricky stuff!

Items which aren't part of collection.

Many items can be stored in a box, some are from completely different collections.


As the papers seem to have been reorganised a few times in the past, the original order is sometimes not very clear and a little detective work was needed to match up the handwriting, dates, bleaching process or the subject concerned.  Occasionally, it took a while to sort out material which wasn’t part of the collection at all.

The picture on the right shows a plan of cemetery plots bought by new owners and arraged alphabetically. It is stored in box 1588 with some Bealey plans and drawings. As it is not catalogued in another collection yet, after some deep thought and head scratching, I finally concluded that the Bealey’s were not involved in this particular venture.

After that, it was time to start entering information about the papers onto the archive management software system called Calm. Unlike the entries in a library catalogue, each individual item in an archive collection is unique and has a relationship to other items in the collection (remember, the original order should be kept) and so when it is catalogued, to show this relationship, a heirarchical structure is produced which looks a bit like a tree.

Cataloguing heirarchical structure

This is a diagram of the heirarchical cataloguing structure which was passed on to me by my colleague Anna Watson, who recently received an MBE, at the County Record Office in Preston when I was a student and volunteer archive assistant. It helps to explain what goes where on the tree.

 This all sounds a bit complicated (an it can be!) but it is really basically about the groups that the records are put into. Starting at the top, all of the papers are in a collection or “fonds”. The diagram to the left should help to explain the different levels down through sub-fonds, series, subseries, file and finally down to an individual item.


And below, this is what it looks like for me as I catalogued on the Calm screen – the tree is on the left.

Calm screen shot

The tree looks complicated but it shows how all of the records relate to each other. Each little box with a + will open another level down in the heirarchy. The documents we are using as an example are for the Creams paper factory which can be found in box 1447. Click on the image to enlarge.

And this is what it looks like on the online catalogue which is available at

Opac screen for catalogue entry

This is the online version of the same catalogue entry for the Creams paper factory which is the view that researchers see. It shows the heirarchy of the "tree" and the relationship between this item and all of the others in the collection. Click on the image to enlarge.

Example document with ref no

This is the reverse of a Sun Fire Insurance policy sent to Mary Bealey in September 1844. Note the penny red stamp, the red wax seal and the catalogue reference number in the bottom right.


The heirarchy of the tree also creates the reference number, BBY/1/1/3/1/1/9 which in this case is quite long. The BBY bit refers to the collection, Richard Bealey & Co., and then the number after each slash indicates the next level down until the item number is reached at the end, which for this record is number 9. If you look closely at the entry, you will be able to see that this is 1 bundle of 18 closely related documents. It is still called “an item” though!

The cataloguing of the Bealey collection is now almost complete and I have catalogued 6168 items! Whew, that’s an awful lot of reference numbers…and this is not a very big collection!

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