What is an Item?

In recent posts, The Original in Context and How Many Copies?, I examined how an original item fits into the collection and how originals are copied into many different forms. Those transformations raise a critical question: What is an Item?

The archival standard, ISAD(G), defines an item as

“the smallest intellectually indivisible archival unit” where a unit of description is “A document or set of documents in any physical form, treated as an entity, as such, forming the basis of a single description”.

So, what does that mean and how can it be applied to genealogical sources? In the example of Alfred Munday’s baptism, the Abinger baptism register is described as an item. It is a single physical entity, a book. It has a particular and unique history in that it was created between July 1841 and May 1898 by the parish clergy filling in baptism details.

What happens to the item when copies are made?

A bundle of Bishop's transcripts

A bundle of Bishop’s transcripts

Annual copies of parish registers were made for the bishop (Bishop’s Transcripts). In the Abinger example loose sheets of paper (or folios) of baptism, marriage and burial forms were filled in, and the diocese (or later custodian) filed these together by year. So, what is an item for these Bishop’s Transcripts? Although they share the same purpose of providing a copy for the bishop, the baptism, marriage and burial folios are copies of 3 separate registers. A logical argument can be made to consider the 2 baptism folios an item. I prefer to treat each folio as an item, as each is a separate and unique physical object.

Filmed records present different issues. Microfilms often contain more than one register and a register may be spread over more than one film. The Abinger 1841-1898 Baptism Register is split over 2 microfilms, numbers 991768 (1841-1876) and 994421 (1874-1898). Both of these microfilms also contain other registers from Abinger and other parishes. The Family History Library catalogue sometimes marks parishes as separate ‘items’, but does not appear to consistently identify original registers or even sequential runs of data. When the microfilm is of something which is itself a copy the relationship to the original may be obscured. The Abinger Bishop’s Transcripts are spread over 2 microfilms, with baptisms 1844-1850 on film 307739 and baptisms 1851-1857 on film 307740.

The distribution of images over microfiche present similar problems to microfilm, except that the number of images on a fiche is typically fewer than film. In the Abinger case, microfiche were produced from microfilms of the original registers. The fiche that contains Alfred Munday’s baptism includes baptisms from 1835 to 1865.

It is clear that a microfilm or a microfiche is a single physical object, but the contents may vary and may not be adequately documented. A pragmatic approach is to treat each microfilm or fiche as an item. That leaves the problem of describing the contents of each item.

So far I have considered physical copies with a pragmatic approach to defining what an item is. In short if you can pick it up and shake it and nothing falls off, it is an item. For artefacts that are in good condition, it holds true. Fragile artefacts (please don’t annoy archivists by shaking) may become detached, but if the parts have been kept together, it still makes sense to treat the whole as an item. When parts of a artefact are split up and distributed, as in the example discussed in Book Breaking and Digitisation, the parts have separate custodial histories, so should be treated as separate items with a lot of documentation.

What about digital objects? Two types of digital objects have been identified for the Abinger example: digital images and databases.

A digital image, typically a jpeg file, is easily identified as an item that can be viewed and downloaded. In the Abinger case, the digital images mostly depict microfilm frames, but some parts of the collection have been directly digitally photographed. The number of pages of a manuscript (e.g. original register or bishop’s transcript) depicted in a traditional photograph or digital image varies, with 1 or 2 pages being common. When 2 pages are depicted, it is usually an opening of a book, such as the Abinger baptism register. Both sides of a folio do not appear in the same image, because you can’t photograph both sides at once. The Abinger bishop’s transcripts were photographed with 1 side each of 2 folios shown in each image, which results in the last page of baptisms and the first page of marriages being on the same image. As Ancestry has re-arranged the images into separate sets for baptisms, marriages and burials, this image appears twice.

Digital image of Abinger Bishop's transcript showing 2 folios

Digital image of Abinger Bishop’s transcript showing 2 folios

Identifying items in databases is the hardest of all. The main online genealogy data vendors categorise data into collections, such as Ancestry’s ‘Surrey, England, Baptisms, 1813-1912’ and ‘London, England, Births and Baptisms, 1813-1906’ collections that contain the Abinger parish registers and bishop’s transcripts respectively. The distinction between collections is blurred by search facilities that permit broad searches on multiple collections. Each collection is a compilation of data from diverse sources, so the collection is not a good candidate for treatment as an item. The structure of online databases is not transparent. A database record, a single row in a database table, could be considered the smallest intellectual unit within a database. A parish register or bishop’s transcript entry may not actually equate to single row in one table, but entries returned by queries could be stored that way.

Each time a copy is made, a transformation occurs. Transformations change the characteristics of an item. The data contained within items is split, re-arranged and compiled in different combinations each time.

split re-arrange compile

© Sue Adams 2015

The Original in Context

In How Many Copies? and A Ghost and More Copies I explored a variety of derivative forms of the baptism of Alfred Munday on 30 November 1845 at Abinger. Archives are principally concerned with the preservation of original documents, so archival catalogues place an emphasis on the originals rather than copies.

A guiding principle to arranging and describing archival materials is ‘Respect des fonds‘, the grouping of documents that share a common creator, purpose and use. Archival catalogues use a hierarchy to record the relationships between documents in a collection or fond.

The General International Standard Archival Description, abbreviated as ISAD(G) provides general guidance for the preparation of archival descriptions, and is intended to be used in conjunction with national standards. The purpose of archival description is to identify and explain the context and content of archival materials. This is achieved by applying multilevel description rules:

  • Description from the general to the specific
  • Information relevant to the level of description
  • Linking of descriptions
  • Non-repetition of information

ISAD(G) provides 26 elements, which cover identity, context, content and structure, conditions of access and use, allied materials, notes, description control. However, only 6 elements are essential:

  • Reference code
  • Title
  • Date(s)
  • Level
  • Extent
  • Creator

Using just the essential 6 elements, I will build a description of the baptism register containing Alfred Munday’s baptism.

Employing the description from the general to the specific rule, I start with the top level collection or fond:

Reference code GB 176 AB
Title Abinger, St James: Parish Records
Date(s) 1559-1979
Level Collection
Extent & medium 22 series
Creator Abinger parish, Church of England

The reference code consists of 3 parts, a country code, GB, from the recommended standard ISO 3166, denotes Great Britain; a repository code, 176, from The National Archives’ catalogue of UK repositories, which denotes Surrey History Centre; and AB which denotes the collection.

The creator of this collection, Abinger parish of the Church of England, deposited their own records, identified by the title. Although the repository may hold other Church of England records, it was the parish that deposited this collection, not the larger church. The level of collection indicates that this group of materials was administered by the creator, which provides a clear provenance. The dates recorded are the range of the whole collection, a general indication of dates covered.

The collection is sub-divided into 22 series, which groups materials that served common purposes and uses. The hierarchy view of Sussex History Centre’s online catalogue shows the variety of materials in this collection.

Hierachy view of Surrey History Centre catalogue showing Abinger parish collection

Hierachy view of Surrey History Centre catalogue showing Abinger parish collection

One of the series, denoted by the reference code AB/4, contains baptism registers created between 1813 and 1898:

Local reference code AB/4
Title Baptism Registers
Date(s) 1813-1898 (creation range)
Level Series
Extent & medium 2 registers & 1 enclosure

Rose’s Act of 1812 specified the format of pre-printed books to be used for Church of England parish registers. In order to comply with the law, parishes typically started new registers around 1812-1813. The change in the way Abinger’s baptism registers were created and used is reflected in the placement of post 1812 registers in a separate series.

I have recorded the dates covered by the registers in the series to comply with the information relevant to the level of description rule, and left creator blank to comply with the non-repetition of information rule.

Within the series of post 1812 baptismal registers there are just 2 registers, the second of which contains Alfred Munday’s baptism:

Local reference code AB/4/2
Title Baptism register
Date(s) Jul 1841 -May 1898 (creation range)
Level Item
Extent & medium Printed & manuscript book, at least 74 pages (last ancestry page scan is p. 73 has reverse print visible)
Creator printed by Shaw & Sons (137 & 138 Fetter Lane, London), manuscript by John Massey Dawson (JMass Dawson) rector 1835-1850, John Wellsted Powell rector 1850-1881, G H Feachem curate, E J Cathrow curate, East Apthorp curate & others

An item is a single document or artefact, in this case a book. I have recorded only information applicable to the book at the item level. As I have not accessed the actual book, I have worked out the number of pages as best I can from the images on Ancestry. I could have left the creator blank, but have chosen to record more detail than usual, including who printed the book and the main clergymen responsible for writing in it. I referred to the Ancestry images and Abinger parish website for this information.

The descriptions are linked by their reference codes. In order to fully appreciate the context and content of this baptism register, all 3 descriptions are needed.

The Surrey History Centre’s catalogue give some more information, particularly at the collection level, which may influence the interpretation of the records. Always explore all the levels of archive catalogues.

Individual records of baptisms, the informational content of an item, are not included in an archival style catalogue. Finding aids such as an index, abstract or transcript provide navigation to information within an item. You can expect a Rose’s Act type of baptism register to have numbered pages and individually numbered entries (p.16 entry no. 123 for Alfred Munday’s baptism) because that was specified by the law to prevent falsification of records.

A finding aid is one of those copies that were the subject of the two previous posts. Linking to them is not supported by the 6 essential elements of ISAD(G). I will explore other ISAD(G) elements in a future post.


© Sue Adams 2015

A Ghost and More Copies

In How many copies? I challenged you to find some more versions of the Abinger baptism for Alfred Munday. Did you find any?

Take a close look at this extract from the Ancestry digital image.

Abinger baptism extract

Abinger baptism extract

Notice that in entry no 22, ‘Alfred’ was written then crossed out. Entry no 22 records the baptism of Sarah Luff on the 9 November 1845, but it had not been written in the register when Alfred was baptised on the 30 November. The curate who performed the ceremonies likely made some sort of note of the details, either mental or written, and filled in the register later.

Parish registers are considered an ‘original’ source in American genealogist’s terminology, or a ‘primary’ source in general historian’s terminology. If you look very closely, ‘original’ might not be the first record. Examination of changes in handwriting and ink might give some insight into the length of time between the baptisms and filling of the register. I would need access to the original register or a high quality colour copy to make such an assessment.

In this post I have added another copy of Alfred Munday’s baptism to those available online, an annotated and cropped version of Ancestry’s digital image. In addition to the file I have uploaded, there are several files in different formats on my computer, a Photoshop file and jpegs saved at different resolutions. Copies downloaded or shared on social media will be further modified, producing yet more copies.

I could also print copies for the relatives who don’t do computers. I have received photocopied records from relatives, such as the example discussed in Copies of Copies, Citation and Source Evaluation with FamilySearch.

Remember, copies are not equal. The further removed from the original the copy is, the more reliant you are on information associated with it. You only know the above extract image is from Abinger parish because I told you so in this post, or from the filename.


© Sue Adams 2015


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