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

Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description

Genealogists have a lot to learn from archivists when it comes to the personal collection of documents we accumulate.


When new materials are received, the first thing an archivist does is record:

  • where it came from
  • who it belongs to
  • roughly what is included
  • any legal agreements or conditions of use imposed by the donor

My parents gave me a box of genealogical goodies few months back as they had moved to a smaller residence without stairs.    Dad said he doesn’t mind what I do with it.  These statements comprise a very informal, and somewhat vague, accession record.  When presented with such a collection, we often do not make notes of the provenance or context of the acquisition, but we should.

Accession information is generally included in archive catalogues only as a reference or access category, as some of it may be private e.g. the donor’s identity.  Acquired collections may resemble an auction job lot you bought for the one item that was not junk, so they need to be sorted and organised.  In archival terms, the collection needs to be arranged.


Archival arrangement collects items together in a way that preserves the provenance and context in which they were created and used.  The arrangement is reflected in the structure of the catalogue.  Each item is assigned a logical position within a hierarchy of categories.  Taking an example from my personal archive, the marriage certificate for Joshua Arthur Smith & Beatrice Elizabeth Davis (RWC/1/6/4), was acquired as part of a discrete bundle from Winifred Clarke (RWC/1/6) in connection with the death of Raymond Walter Coulson (RWC) and filed by his administrator (RWC/1).  I sorted the items in Winifred’s bundle by date of creation, as they weren’t in any order.

In a big archive’s online catalogue, you might only see the entry for the marriage certificate, but you need to check the hierarchy to get the full story.   My personal catalogue looks like this.

Reference Title Description Dates
RWC Raymond Walter Coulson (1922-1997) collection Papers, photographs, correspondence, memorabilia and probate documents of Raymond Walter Coulson of 322 Aston Hall Road, Aston, Birmingham, who died intestate on 24 May 1997.
RWC/1 Probate file Compiled by [my dad], administrator for the estate of Raymond Walter Coulson, between May 1997 and January 1998.
RWC/1/6 Winifred Clarke late Coulson, nee Smith (1906-1996) collection Bundle of birth, marriage and death certificates, probate and burial documents, 1 photograph.  Given to [my dad] in 1997 by the residential home where Winifred Clarke last resided, as no other relative had claimed them. 1860-1996
RWC/1/6/1 Marriage Certificate – George Smith & Clara Webster 20 Jul 1860
RWC/1/6/2 Marriage Certificate – Walter Davis & Elizabeth Walton 06 Jul 1874
RWC/1/6/3 Birth Certificate – George Edward Coulson 21 Nov 1902
RWC/1/6/4 Marriage Certificate – Joshua Arthur Smith & Beatrice Elizabeth Davis Church of England, St Saviour’s church, Saltley parish, County of Warwick.  Original certified copy of the Marriage Register, page 109, no 217,  23 May 1904 23 May 1904
RWC/1/6/5 Birth Certificate – Joshua Arthur Smith 28 Aug 1923
RWC/1/6/6 Marriage Certificate – George Edward Coulson & Winifred Smith 14 Dec 1929
RWC/1/6/7 Death Certificate – George Edward Coulson 04 Feb 1957
RWC/1/6/8 Death Certificate – George Edward Coulson 04 Feb 1957
RWC/1/6/9 Bill for funeral of George Edward Coulson 22 Feb 1957
RWC/1/6/10 Grant of exclusive Right of Burial 01 Mar 1957
RWC/1/6/11 Will of Winfred Clarke 14 Jan 1971
RWC/1/6/12 First Codicil to Will of Winfred Clarke 16 Nov 1973
RWC/1/6/13 Death Registration certificate – Winifred Clarke 03 Jul 1996
RWC/1/6/14 photograph – elderly woman & baby n.d.


Archival description pulls together the information needed to identify, manage, locate, and interpret the contents of a collection and explains the context of a collection’s creation and functions.  Information that applies to a whole group of items is included in the record for that level, becoming more specific at deeper levels of arrangement.  My example includes an item level description of the marriage certificate, and how and why it was acquired (i.e. the context) in other levels of the hierarchy.

Genealogical citation geeks may recognise many of the elements of a genealogical citation are included in my catalogue.  That makes me wonder why catalogue details are not embedded in digital images of documents we routinely download.  Now that would really add value to online data offerings.

Detailed description takes lots of time and archives receive many accessions, so do not expect archive catalogues to contain item level descriptions with names of people.   Only very important collections may be fully described.

Winnie’s collection

The collection accumulated by Winifred, known as Winnie, is an excellent springboard for researching her family, particularly the Smith side.  If you want to put a face to the name, she featured in ‘Is it George or Jack?  Engagement photograph identification’.  This collection identifies her parents, grandparents, and all 4 great-grandfathers.

Chart of Winnie's ancestor & custodians of her collection

Chart showing Winnie’s ancestors and the relationships of custodians of her collection

The chart presents Winnie’s relatives and shows people who have had custody of her parent’s marriage certificate (green), and the person whose death lead to its acquisition (red).  A bread crumb trail of custody is:

Beatrice & Joshua > Winnie > elderly residential home > Dad > Me

Marriage Certificate - Joshua Arthur Smith & Beatrice Elizabeth Davis

Marriage Certificate – Joshua Arthur Smith & Beatrice Elizabeth Davis

Bride: Beatrice Elizabeth Davis, aged 26
Groom: Joshua Arthur Smith, aged 41
Date: 23 May 1904
Location: St Saviours, Saltley, Warwickshire

Beatrice and Joshua appear on the 1911 census at 13 Ash Tree Cottages, Alum Rock Road, Saltley, Birmingham.  The household was headed by Clara Smith, Joshua’s mother and included 4 year old Winifred, the couple’s daughter.  I can’t help wondering if the mystery photo of an old woman and baby might be Winnie and her grandma Clara.

The National Archives reference for this census record is RG 14/18344/25.  Fancy trying out the catalogue?  Can you work out what each of the reference elements means?

The 25 item refers to the number marked on the schedule, a form comprised of one sheet of paper.  The catalogue does not include any item level information i.e. individual schedules, but the group of schedules.

RG Records of the General Register Office…
14 1911 Census Schedules
18344 Registration district no 385 (Aston),  Registration Sub-District no 5 (Erdington), Enumeration district no 25

© Sue Adams 2013

Correction 20 January 2015: The National Archives reference should be RG 14/181344 not RG 14/18172, so this post has been updated accordingly.