4. Archival Catalogues

Not a Library Catalogue

In the first lesson, we looked at the differences between libraries and archives. One of the main differences was how you find the information you are looking for. We saw that you can’t browse archives in the same way as you might browse library shelves.

Archive catalogues were described as ‘hierarchical’. In this section we shall elaborate on this and explain what makes an archive catalogue different.

Don’t worry, different needn’t be scary! Once you understand the basics, using archival catalogues is as easy as using a library. If you don’t get it straight away, don’t give up. Exploring online catalogues and other resources will put the things you learn in this section in context.

If you ever do need help, don’t struggle or be embarrassed, ask an archivist.

Did You Know?
If you’ve ever wondered how people used to navigate the oceans, why not look at the papers of the Board of Longitude, which are held at the Cambridge University Library but can be viewed online.



Hierarchical Description

A hierarchy is a system in which things are arranged in levels, with some things above others. It’s like an inverted tree structure. It may help to think of it as a family tree. So what makes archival catalogues hierarchical?

The collection, or 'fonds' level is the highest level of description in an archival catalogue. It tends to relate to a particular person or institution. At this level, you get an overview of the entire collection. By following the hierarchy down to the lower levels, you get more detailed descriptions.

The next level down is usually the 'series' level. This relates to particular types of activities, for example, in the papers of authors there are often separate series for prose, poetry and correspondence.

Then you get to the lower levels, usually called 'sub-series' or 'files'. These levels tend to relate to particular events, or instances of the activity the series relates to. A file is often the lowest level of description, although sometimes archivists list every single item.

For example, there might be a file relating to a particular correspondent within a series of correspondence. These files can contain over a hundred letters, in which case cataloguing to 'item' level may not be possible and the file is the lowest level in that branch of the hierarchy.

But another file relating to a different correspondent might contain only a few letters in which case the letters can be catalogued individually, and that file is not the lowest level in that branch of the hierarchy – it has several children which are descriptions of the individual letters. The letters are the lowest level of that branch, not the file.

An 'item' can vary in size but it is intellectually indivisible, for example a letter comprising several pages is still considered an item because all of the pages are part of one letter.

There aren’t a set number of levels, as you will see in the next page.

When cataloguing, archivists try to avoid repetition. So if some part of the description applied to every file in a series, that information might be included in the series level description instead of the lower level descriptions.

Did You Know?
You’ll be familiar with hierarchies in other contexts, such as those found in workplaces (employer and employee etc.). Other examples include the language family tree and the classification of species used by biologists (i.e. there are various types of mammals but they all share certain features).



E.M. Forster’s Hierarchy

Schematic Diagram of EM Forster's Hierarchy

The papers of the writer EM Forster, held in the King’s College Archive Centre, provide a good example of how the hierarchy works. This collection includes 42 series. At 63 boxes and 72 volumes, it is one of our larger collections. The schematic diagram on the right only shows selected parts.

First, look at the Novels series. You can see that the next level down includes a file and a sub-series, each of which relates to different novels. Although EMF/1/3 is called a ‘file’, it’s physically 4 'guard books'. Remember, in this case, the word ‘file’ refers to a level of description, not an object. Guard books are volumes with blank pages into which loose documents have been pasted using materials which are consistent with the long-term preservation of the documents.

In the large Correspondence series, the level below the series includes a file, an item and a sub-series. This mixture of levels may seem illogical but it is actually done for a good reason. Each of the descriptions immediately below the Correspondence series level relate to a particular correspondent. Within the D.H. Lawrence sub-series, the copy of a letter Forster sent to Lawrence is kept separately to the ones Forster received from Lawrence.

While a person’s archive often contains drafts or photocopies of letters sent by that person, it is rare but not unheard of to hold the originals. This is due to provenance. Once a letter is sent, the physical letter is no longer the property of the person who wrote it, (although the copyright is – we’ll look at copyright in section 6), and is thus unlikely to be in his/her personal papers.

Look at the different ‘file’ level descriptions. They are all different sizes. Most catalogue entries include data about the extent, or size, of the object(s) being described and this information should not be neglected when using archival catalogues.

We shall look at the catalogue of the papers of Rupert Brooke, held at King’s College, Cambridge, in the activity at the end of this section and from Section 7 onwards.

Essential Elements

What should you expect to see in a catalogue entry?

Older catalogues may vary but in modern archival catalogues you should see the following for each description:

Reference number


This is what you need to quote when requesting documents.



This is a just a broad overview of the contents.

Scope and content


Here you find a more detailed description of the contents.



These are the covering dates of the documents in the file. The documents will all have been created between two dates, though they may relate to events which occurred outside those dates. For example, a memoir written in 1924-5 might recollect World War One but its covering dates would still be 1924-1925.



Here you will see how much material the description refers to – remember a description could refer to one sheet or several boxes so this is worth checking.



The level of description, for example series, file or item. This does not appear in all descriptions but the place in the hierarchy should always be clear.

Take a look at the description for the D.H. Lawrence subseries within E.M. Forster’s correspondence on ArchiveSearch (EMF/18/311) and find all the elements.

ArchiveSearch is an on-line catalogue shared by various repositories throughout Cambridge. You can navigate down an on-line catalogue by the items in the right-hand sidebar that have a '>' mark next to them. You can pull the left side of that sidebar to the left, to see more of the words (and the dates) in the titles.

You may find that there are further elements to some descriptions, for example at the fonds level you will usually see an 'administrative history'. This kind of additional information may be useful, as it can tell you about the provenance of a collection.

Did You Know?
An international cataloguing standard called ISAD(G) was introduced in 1993. This guidance means that archivists include the same elements in all of the catalogues they produce, making it easier for readers to use them.

Legacy Data

We are used to finding everything on computers and expect most things to be available online. Many archival collections were catalogued before the internet became so widely used. This means that many catalogues only exist on paper or as index cards.

Many repositories are attempting to retro-convert such catalogues (i.e. convert old catalogues to digital to make the information searchable on computers) but this is very time-consuming. This is one reason that archives often provide the fonds level description online, without the lower level descriptions.

This is particularly common in resources such as the Archives Hub (see section 3). This means that it can be worth asking the archivists at the relevant repository whether a more detailed catalogue is available, although you still can’t expect every single item in a file to be listed individually in all cases.

Did You Know?
The papers of Alan Turing, famous for his work on the Enigma Machine, have been digitized and can be seen at the Alan Turing Digital Archive. This website is presented in a way which reflects the hierarchy of the collection.



Is Everything Online?

No! Making information about collections available online is an ideal most archivists are working towards but it is not always easy.

If you have reason to believe there may be papers relating to a particular individual or institution at a certain repository, it is worth contacting the archivists there or the librarians if there is not an archivist, to ask them.

Did You Know?
There are 32,522,657 records in The National Archives’ Discovery database (correct on 1 April 2015), which can be searched online.



What If I Don’t Find What I’m Looking For?

If you have searched all of the appropriate registers, hubs and catalogues and still haven’t found the records you are looking for, there are a few possible reasons:

  • The information was never recorded.

  • The records have not survived.

  • The records have survived but have not been transferred to an archive.

  • The records are in an archive but have not been catalogued or the catalogue has not been put online yet.

If you explain to an archivist what you are looking for and where you have looked so far, they will be happy to advise you on what to do next. There is no such thing as a stupid question and any archivist will be pleased to help, especially if you have already tried to find things yourself.

Archivists can be busy so if you don’t get an answer straight away, please be patient. They will do all they can to help you.

Did You Know?
The National Archives’ website includes several subject guides, including ones on the First World War and Poor Law, both of which might be of interest to those studying Rupert Brooke.




  • Archival catalogues can be confusing at first so if you haven’t followed everything in this section, don’t worry! It can be easier to understand how archival catalogues work after you have explored them and tried to find a few items. Re-read anything you found difficult and search the internet in order to look at a few interesting catalogues. You may also wish to look at our Useful Sources section.

    When you feel ready, have a go at the following activity.

    Find the following documents on ArchiveSearch, using the hierarchy, keyword searching and/or the advanced search option. When you type in the correct answer, an image of the document will appear.

    The Papers of Rupert Chawner Brooke
    Title: Portrait of Rupert Brooke
    Reference: RCB/Ad/5
    Creator: Emery Walker, Ltd.
    Covering Dates: (Undated.)
    Extent and Medium: 1 item in envelope; paper

  • 1. A professional group photograph showing Rupert Brooke, William Parker Brooke (his father, a schoolmaster) and Geoffrey Keynes (his friend), taken at School Field, Rugby School by George A. Dean, Rugby. 1902.

  • 2. 'Are the playing at cards and the attendance at the theatre amusements consistent with the character of a clergyman?' Manuscript of a paper read to the Apostles. 4 May 1910.

  • 3. A photograph of Rupert Brooke in costume as Stingo, in Goldsmith’s ‘She Stoops to Conquer’, performed at the A.D.C. Theatre. Feb. 1914.

  • 4. Manuscript drafts of the poem ‘The Soldier’, written in 1914.

  • Total question answered: 0/4
    Overall score: 0/4

    This resource is designed to be challenging so if you didn’t get full marks, don’t be disheartened.

    Just refresh the page, go back over anything you didn’t get right, try again and if you still don’t understand, please feel free to contact archivist@kings.cam.ac.uk.


Are there any advantages to hierarchical description? Wouldn’t it be easier just to use a keyword search and forget about all of those levels of description?

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