Training Day 2008

An introduction to arrnaging and describing your archive collections, University of Southampton

Fourteen participants from diocesan and religious community archives attended the training day organised by Sarah Stanton in the conference room of the Hartley Library at the University of Southampton. The theme of the day was An Introduction to arranging and describing your archive collections.

Professor Chris Woolgar, head of the special collections at the Hartley Library, welcomed the participants who then introduced themselves and spoke briefly about the situation of their archives.  The day was divided into five sessions conducted by Sarah and her colleagues.

Session 1: Archival theory. Having given our ideas on the purpose of the arrangement of archives, we began with the theory behind their arrangement the principles of provenance and original order. Records should be kept according to their source, each collection being kept separately and treated independently; additional material should not be added nor material removed from a collection. This could present problems if the collection were very disorganised: should the original ‘disorder’ be maintained or
should one attempt to re-arrange the papers in some sort of order?

Session 2: Archival levels of description and cataloguing standards. Within each collection archives are arranged hierarchically. The International Standard for Archive Description (General) (ISAD(G) was explained and illustrated as it offers a system of description ranging from the whole collection to the individual items: From fonds- the whole of the records, that is the group or collection of the records of an individual or organisation; through sub-fonds, series, files and items.

Session 3: Finding Aids. A practical and realistic session asked us what we hoped to achieve with our cataloguing programme which should reflect the aims and priorities we have in general in our archives. We were encouraged not to view finding aids in isolation from the reality of our particular situations: what time did we have available? any budget? who uses the archive? bow much backlog exists? We were then introduced to the various types of finding aids: inventory, guide, catalogue/list; index and subject guide. These aids were a ‘family’ of finding aids, each one independent but all inter-related. Some existing classification schemes were mentioned including those presented by CAS over the years. We were given brief guidelines on writing effective catalogues with pointers to what should be included and a check list to verify the accuracy, clarity,
conciseness and impartiality of our descriptions. All very useful and informative.

Session 4: Sorting Archives ‘Don’t panic! Don’t rush!’ This was the opening advice of the first afternoon session which provided practical tips for tackling unordered papers and cataloguing backlogs. We looked at the principles of sorting, beginning from the centre, or the most important records to the less important, avoiding a sorting based solely on the format of the materials. The ideals of preserving the original order of a collection and helping researchers to find the documents they want to consult often have to be compromised as it is rare to be able to meet both these ideals.

We then moved on to consider prioritising tasks and appraising materials – from the very mundane of identifying the location of materials within a house …with a strong caveat: don’t believe the labels on boxes and files; they may be misleading. We were then invited to attempt a practical exercise of appraising, sorting and cataloguing materials. The time, unfortunately, was very limited, but did bring home the discipline needed to sort rather than to get drawn into reading quite interesting documents.

Session 5: Archives and Information Technology: The final short session presented by Prof. Woolgar took us briefly into the realms of using computers and the internet to make our archives accessible. We were introduced to several useful websites giving links to archives on the internet.

Session 6: Archival visit. Finally, for those able to spend a little more time in the Special Collections, Sarah took us into the archive where she had, in usual CAS style, extracted a few documents of Catholic interest including a letter to the Duke of Wellington mentioning the Weld and Tichbome families of Hampshire. We paid brief visits also to the conservation and photographic laboratories and to the strong rooms.

The presentations of the day had been very clear and backed up by equally clear handouts, and although most of us will be sorting and cataloguing for a long while to come, the guidance we received was very helpful. Thank you, Sarah, for a very worthwhile day.

Report by Sr. Mary C. Treacy fma