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

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