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When using online portals to find archival material, it is helpful to understand how archive catalogues work. The information interrogated by online portals to return search results comes from descriptive catalogues created by archivists. If you understand the different elements of these descriptive catalogues your use of the search features of online portals will be more successful.
Material created by the same body and deposited by that creating body or its representatives is treated by archivists as a discrete ‘archival collection’. Individual items within a collection have a shared ‘provenance’ which means that they are related to each other because of the circumstances of their creation or collation. To reflect this, archivists create a descriptive catalogue for each individual collection.
Descriptive catalogues are based on hierarchical levels which reflect groups of records within a collection. This is done to provide an intellectual structure to a collection so that individual records are easier to find. Archivists devise an intellectual structure based on the original order of the material, i.e. how the creator of the material grouped it together.
This original order can tell you a lot about how organisations and individuals functioned. As an example, if we consider the records created by a hospital in the 19th century: admission, theatre and discharge registers were created to record interactions with patients; minutes and reports were created to record the decisions taken by the hospital governors; accounts were created to record the financial position of the hospital, etc. Each of these groups of records would be described in the catalogue as discrete series. Therefore, the structure of the descriptive catalogue can reflect the areas of activity of the creating body. This can be useful to researchers who are interested in particular types of activity.
It provides background information about the creator of the collection, it gives a general sense of what material is contained within the collection, and it outlines how the collection is arranged.
The collection level description is also used to give a sense of the overall extent of the collection (how much there is), the chronological period covered by the material, whether there are any access conditions, and whether there are any related or similar collections.
After the collection level description comes the series level of description. This level of description is used to describe similar record groups, with each group having its own series level description. Descriptive elements at this level aim to provide an overview of the type of information found within records in the series, the chronological coverage, and the extent of material to be expected.
Beneath the series level description, individual records are then described in detail. At this item level of the catalogue, detailed descriptions provide information about what individual items are, what format they exist in, and what information they contain.
In order to fully understand what an individual record is, we must pay attention to the higher levels under which it can be found. In this way, archive catalogues can provide a great deal of contextual information, ultimately showing how individual items within a collection are connected to each other.