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Finding Archives: Archive catalogues

Guide to searching for archival material

“All life is linked together in such a way that no part of the chain is unimportant”

John Henry Comstock 

What are archive catalogues?

Archive catalogues provide descriptions of archive collections and details relating to the individual records which make up these collections.

The term might be used in the following two ways, to refer to:

  • An online database, with a public search interface, which contains descriptions of archive collections and individual records held by an archive repository.
  • A paper or electronic document describing a single archive collection in detail.

An online archive catalogue contains the data taken from catalogues describing individual archive collections. Both types of catalogue are explored further on this page. However, to understand them fully, it is helpful to first look at how archivists describe collections, and the principles that underpin archival description.


Understanding how archives are described

Key concept: Heirarchy - records within an archive collection are described using hierarchical levels of description.

This means that archive catalogues start out by describing the collection as a whole, they then move on to describe discrete groups of records within the collection, before drilling down into the detail of what individual records exist.

At each level of description we learn something new about the collection. By describing a collection in this way, we not only show a researcher what records a collection contains, we can also show a researcher how those records are connected to each other. We impose an intellectual control over records within a collection, which preserves the context in which those records were created.

Imagine files of documents stored in a filing cabinet: the cabinet keeps the files together and in the order they need to be kept so that they can be easily retrieved; the files keep related loose documents together. A descriptive catalogue does the same job intellectually as a filing cabinet does physically.

To understand this further, we might consider the records created by a hospital in the 19th century, which include:

  • 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

If we described such a collection simply as a long list of individual records in no particular order, we would lose the sense of how individual records reflect the original function and activities of the hospital. If such an institution ever became defunct, over time we might forget how it functioned. Describing the records in relation to the original activities they were created to document allows us to preserve this knowledge.

To explore the theoretical background to why archivists describe collections in this way, see the page Archival Theory on our SkillsGuide Archives - The Basics.

Three key descriptive levels

Use the tabs below to learn about each of the different levels of description used by archivists when creating an archive catalogue.

Collection Level Description

The description of a collection begins with an overview of the collection as a whole. This is the first in a series of descriptive levels. This overview helps researchers make an initial assessment about whether the collection might contain any records of relevance to their research.

This top level is known as the collection level description and provides the following information:

  • Background and history relating to the creator of the collection
  • Brief overview of what material is contained within the collection
  • Outline of how the collection is arranged (what series of records exist and in what order in the catalogue).
  • Extent of the collection (in meters/boxes)
  • Access issues (whether anything in the collection is not accessible for legal or preservation reasons)
  • Broad date coverage represented by the records in the collection
  • List of related material in other collections held by the repository

Series Level Description

Beneath the catalogue level description, records are next described in series. These descriptions help researchers narrow down which records might be of use to their research.

Series represent discrete groups of records which have something in common. For example, they might be of the same record type (i.e. a group of deeds, a group of minutes, a group of newsletters, etc.); or they share a point of origin (i.e. a group of various records that were created by a single sub-committee of an organisation).

A separate description is created for each of these groups.

This level is known as a series level description and provides the following information:

  • Description of the records in the series, including context of their creation
  • Outline of informational content generally found within the type of record that makes up the series
  • Extent of the series (in number of items)
  • Access issues (whether anything in the series is not accessible for legal or preservation reasons)
  • Covering dates of the earliest and latest records in the series

Item Level Description

Beneath the series level description, records are next described individually and in detail. These descriptions help researchers pinpoint whether an individual record is of interest to them and their research.

This level is known as an item level description and provides the following information:

  • Title of the record
  • Description of the record and detail regarding informational content
  • Extent of the record (whether single item, multi-leaf, or a file of loose items)
  • Access issues (indication is given if a record is not accessible for legal or preservation reasons)
  • Specific date of the record

Online catalogues

Most archive repositories have their own online catalogues which can be search to find information about the collections they hold.

The descriptive data created by archivists when they create a catalogue of an individual collection is uploaded to provide content for online catalogues.

Use the tabs below to explore the online catalogues of several local repositories, all of which are within travelling distance of the University of Hull, either by bus or train.

Hull History Centre

Use the catalogue to to explore what is held at Hull History Centre.

Hull History Centre catalogue

Further information about Hull History Centre's collections, which comprise the University of Hull Archives, Hull City Archives and Hull Local Studies Library, can be found in the Archive Collections at HHC SkillsGuide, and on Hull History Centre's Research Guides page.

If you require any further advice on History Centre holdings, the Hull University Archives team are happy to help in any way they can. Questions should be sent to archives@hull.ac.uk.

Borthwick Institute for Archives

Use the catalogue to explore what is held at the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

Further information about the Borthwick's collections can be found on the Our Holdings page of their website.

If you require any further advice on the Borthwick's holdings, enquiries can be made to borthwick-institute@york.ac.uk.

East Riding Archives

Use the catalogue to explore what is held at East Riding Archives.

Further information about East Riding Archive's collections can be found on the What's in the archives? page of their website.

If you require any further advice on East Riding Archive's holdings, enquiries can be made to archives.service@eastriding.gov.uk.


Paper catalogues

Before we had the technology available to allow us to create online catalogues, archivists produced paper catalogues for each collection held in a repository.

Whilst most repositories are working to convert paper catalogues so that the data can be included in online catalogues, this is a big task. It is therefore possible that you might need to use legacy paper catalogues to find archive material.

Even where a repository has an online catalogue, they might continue to maintain paper catalogues (or PDF/electronic versions of the same) to aid researchers.

In some instances, it can be helpful to have access to the paper or PDF catalogue of an individual collection. If, for example, you are interested in the history of a single organisation that a repository has a collection for, being able to browse descriptions of all the records from that collection in a single document can be easier than searching through a list of results returned via an online catalogue search.

The following links provide examples of paper catalogues, which have been created to describe some significant collections held at Hull History Centre: