Cataloguing the Bill Lawrence collection

Family gatherings are often where family history is shared.  This New Years Eve (30 December 2015) was no exception.  My Aunt, Gill, handed me a folder of documents.  She had acquired them from her cousin, Penny.  The documents belonged to William Henry Lawrence who died in 2009 aged 94, leaving them to his niece, Penny.  William, or Bill as he was known to family, was the husband of Gwendoline Brown, my 1st cousin once removed.

All the documents share a common origin, and together, tell a story about Bill’s life.  So they make a natural collection or, in archival terms, fond.  I am always excited when presented with original documents from personal collections because these are the kind of treasures that don’t find a home in an official archive.  In the early years of my family history obsession I would have eagerly shuffled the contents of the folder as I examined them.  Experience of using archives has taught me to keep collections in the order presented.  As I started to go through the pile, carefully preserving the order, my other aunt piped up, “They aren’t in any order.  We had them all over the table when Penny showed them to us.”  That was time to bite my tongue!  It is useful to know that the photographs tucked into the passport is about what my living relatives thought, not how Bill arranged them.

Later, at home with a table clear of New Year Chinese takeaway & fish and chips, I set about cataloguing the collection.  First, I recorded the origin of the collection and asked Penny if she was happy for me to use the documents on this blog.  It is important to establish whether there are any concerns that might need addressing.  That covers the first stage (accession) of archival cataloguing described in Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description.

The next step is to gather related items and put them into an order. The arrangement process can be summarised in 3 steps:

  1. List everything and count the number of items. There are 59 items in this collection.
  2. Decide what to keep. This collection has already been sifted by Penny, so there isn’t anything to be discarded, except an empty plastic pocket.
  3. Group related things together in a hierarchy.

This video from York Libraries and Archives gives guidance for community archives.

As you can see from the video, the same collection was grouped differently by the participants, but both were equally valid.  An analogy is the ways in which you could arrange a pack of cards.  If you want to check the pack is complete, you could sort by suit, then by value.  If you were playing rummy you would group runs in suits, and triples of matching value. For cribbage combinations that add up to 15, and pairs are important.  It is easy to return a pack of cards to its original order because the information in on the cards.  Historical documents are rarely so amenable.

Three card arrangements. Hearts suit (top), rummy hand (left), cribbage hand (right)

Three card arrangements.
Hearts suit (top), rummy hand (left), cribbage hand (right)

Some people advocate organising your genealogical documents according to the people they relate to, working through your family tree.  This approach is problematic, because it fails to preserve provenance information, does not accommodate documents that don’t relate to individuals and is vulnerable to changes in conclusions that are an inevitable part of genealogical research.  Bill’s collection could be split between himself, his parents, grandparents, and a ship.  That would lose the information that these documents were Bill’s own, and that he kept them for many years.  It is possible to record that information separately, but I think that is doing things the hard way.  Going back to the cards analogy, the less shuffling the easier it is to see and understand what you have.

You may recall that the collection had been shuffled, so my task was to re-create a logical order.  I settled on 5 categories (series), some of which were sub-divided (files):

  1. Official documents
    • Passports 1 item
    • Civil registration 5 items
  2. Personal documents
    • Correspondence 6 items
    • Other 2 items
  3. Largs Bay. Voyage, ship history 5 items
  4. Military papers. WWII 9 items
  5. Photographs 31 items

Within each category, I sorted the documents by date order and numbered them accordingly.  Most of the photographs are undated.  I grouped them by size, paper type, markings on back and content, so photos processed at the same time should be together.  There is still work to do on the photos, so I am not going to assign sub-divisions within them.

To stop shuffling when I start working with this collection, I put the photos in a slip in album and the documents in a display book with plastic pockets.  This is cheap and readily available storage, which is adequate for the short term.  In the longer term, I may invest in proper archival storage.

Bill's collection in temporary storage

Bill’s collection in temporary storage

The next step is detailed description of both groups and items.  I have basic description from the first list of items that could be used as a title for each item.  Essential information for most descriptions include: creator, date, title (what is it), description (more details), extent (e.g. how many pages in a leaflet, how many items in a series), level (collection, series or item), reference.

So, the first few catalogue entries look like this:

Reference WHL
Title William Henry Lawrence (1915-2009) collection
Description Documents relating to William Henry Lawrence, his parents (William Henry Lawrence & Edith May Spencer) and maternal grandparents (Robert Spencer & Mary Ann Marsden Bentley).  Born in Australia but returned to Britain on SS Largs Bay after his father’s death. Photographs, army papers from WWII, passports, civil registration certificates, national health & national registration documents, letters, telegrams, business card, funeral bill.
Dates 1915-1981
Extent 59 items
Level Fond
Reference WHL/1
Title Official documents
Extent 2 files, 6 items
Level Series
Reference WHL/1/1
Title Passports
Extent 1 item
Level File
Reference WHL/1/1/1
Title Passport. 289463. Mr R Spencer, wife Mary Ann Marsden Spencer nee Bentley
Creator Foreign Office, United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.
Description  Valid for British Empire.  Issued 20 November 1922, expiry date 20 November 1924, renewal Melbourne 10 January 1925 – 20 November 1925, stamps 11 Jan 1923 Fremantle; 10 January 1925 Melbourne
Dates 20 November 1922
Extent 32 pages
Level Item
Reference WHL/1/2
Title Civil registration
Extent 5 items
Level File
Reference WHL/1/2/1
Title Birth Certificate. Gwendoline Dorothy Brown. 11 August 1915
Creator Superintendent Registrar. Balsall Heath, King’s Norton.
Description  Birth Certificate [short form]. Entry no 263, book 6a. Gwendoline Dorothy Brown. Born 11 August 1915, registered 22 September 1915.
Dates 22 September 1915
Extent 1 item
Level Item

After arranging the collection, I am able to find documents and see how they relate to one another.  As I add more detailed description, the catalogue becomes an even more valuable resource.  More  information than typically appears in citations is included.

Would you like software that helps you build your own genealogy archive catalogue?


© Sue Adams 2016

Pulling containment and derivation together – An experiment with Evernote

In The Original in Context, I examined how archivists place an original item in the context of a collection, using the 6 core elements of ISAD(G), noted in red below. Now I will use 2 more ISAD(G) elements (noted in blue below), linking to originals and copies, to record the relationships between original source items and copies or derivatives made from them that I discussed in How Many Copies?. For an adequate analysis of any source for genealogical purposes these 8 elements are the minimum set.

I have also added ISAD(G) element ‘System of Arrangement’ to link to the next lower level in the archival hierarchy (noted in blue). ISAD(G) assumes the reference code and level are sufficient to describe relationships between catalogue records and leaves implementation to the developer. I have used a non-standard element ‘Part of’ (noted in green) to implement linking the next highest level record in the archival hierarchy. The following 10 elements are used in an experimental Evernote implementation:

  1. Reference code
  2. Title
  3. Dates
  4. Level
  5. Extent & medium
  6. Creator
  7. Part of
  8. System of Arrangement
  9. Existence and location of originals
  10. Existence and location of copies

Staying with the Abinger baptism example, I created a set of linked notes as catalogue entries for a subset of the records identified in the earlier blog posts. In light of further analysis that benefitted from the insights of archivists at the Surrey History Centre and London Metropolitan Archives, whom I thank with gratitude, I have updated the diagram that explored the derivation of copies:

Derivaties of the Abinger Baptism - updated

Derivatives of the Abinger Baptism – updated.  Interactive version here

For the sake of brevity and clarity of concept, I have included just one of the derivation paths in the Evernote implementation.   Marked in blue above, I have included the original parish register, Bishop’s transcript, microfilm, digital image, Ancestry database, and copies I made:

Derivation path of Abinger baptism

Derivation path of Abinger baptism.  Interactive version here

The means of derivation, discussed in What is an Item, has been colour coded: green means an extract/abstract, red is a compilation that includes material from other collections, and blue or purple are my research copies.

Evernote Implementation

Evernote is popular and widely adopted by the genealogical community. The free version is accessible to all. As I want you to explore building you own catalogue of genealogical records, these are important considerations. Evernote was designed as an organisation tool, not a cataloguing system, so there are some drawbacks. I am not suggesting that is the ideal tool for the purpose of implementing an ISAD(G) compliant catalogue.

Archival cataloguing software, designed to implement archival standards, would be an ideal tool for testing my ideas. However, I have yet to find a consumer friendly version of archival software that is both freely available and requires little or no prior archival or information technology knowledge for use or installation.

Screenshot of shared Surrey History Centre Evernote notebook

Screenshot of shared Surrey History Centre Evernote notebook

This is how I built my catalogue using Evernote:

I created a notebook that documents repositories, and separate notebooks for each repository including my personal archive. I stacked the 6 notebooks to keep them together and made each notebook public so you can view or join them. For Evernote users joining the notebook makes it visible from your own account. If you join all of the notebooks, you will be able to see the whole catalogue. The notebooks are:

  • Repositories contains a note for each archive notebook with a listing of its contents.
  • Surrey History Centre contains a note for each level of the archive catalogue for the original Baptism Register, as discussed in The Original in Context.
  • London Metropolitan Archive contains a note for each level of the archive catalogue for the Bishop’s Transcript.
  • Family History Library, Salt Lake City contains a note for each level in the library catalogue for the microfilm of the Bishop’s Transcript.
  • Ancestry contains a hierarchy of notes for the digital image and database entry.
  • Sue’s archive contains notes for 3 copies I downloaded or otherwise copied.

Each notebook also contains a ‘Table of Contents’ note, which I used as a quick method of accessing the hyperlinks to each note. I used these hyperlinks to connect notes within a notebook, representing the archival hierarchy, and between notebooks, representing derivations from originals and intermediate forms. Please explore. Does this work for you?

Can ISAD(G) represent all of the source information genealogists need?

This experiment has been instructive and provided some insights. It does seem that all the information needed to describe the traditional archival hierarchy, treated as a series of containers, is covered in the experimental example. The information needed to describe derivation of copies, if restricted to just one final item, is also covered. If you were to add more items to this example, would you still be able to trace derivation? I think that may require a breadcrumb trail of links to be recorded for each item.

Differences in the views of archivists and genealogists have become starkly apparent to me. Archivists describe collections from a top down perspective, starting with an overview and working down to individual items, and emphasize original items. Genealogists encounter individual items, often as copies, and then work out how things fit together. Typically the researcher starts with a database or index search, then progresses to identify image copies, and then checking the authenticity of the image.

Please try this approach out for recording information about your sources. You can use tools other than Evernote, as that would make an interesting comparison.

© Sue Adams 2015