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

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

Hierarchies Help Source Organisation, Analysis and Citation

Jill Ball’s recent hangout on air entitled Let’s get organised caused me pause and think. The question of how to organise the physical and digital ‘stuff’ we accumulate during genealogical research is a common one that elicits a wide variety of responses. This discussion revolved mainly around digital files.

The panellists broadly follow two patterns of file organisation, person oriented and source oriented. Person oriented systems typically arrange files in folders for surnames and individuals. Source oriented systems typically arrange files in folders for each source type. Some people also have place and project folders.

Retrieval strategies include using file naming conventions, tagging, assignment of unique file ids, indexes and spreadsheets. Panellists use Family Historian, Custodian, Evernote, Excel and to help them keep track of the ‘stuff’.

In Provenance of a Personal Collection – Archival Accession, Arrangement and Description, I advocated recording source information in a hierarchical archival style catalogue. Archival catalogues typically arrange source items by the provenance and context of their creation and use, which is reflected in multiple levels of logical organisation. Storage is not necessarily the same as logical organisation.

Are Hierarchies Hard?

Genealogists create family trees. A family tree is a hierarchical branching structure where layers represent generations of ancestors. So, genealogists would readily adopt a source hierarchy, wouldn’t they? The discussion made it pretty plain that is not the case.

Jill advocates a flat digital file structure. Among the panellists who use a hierarchy of physical or digital folders, the number of levels is restricted to no more than 2 or 3.

Why do people find hierarchies difficult?

Navigation through hierarchy levels is hard to get your head around. I have been looking for a tool that helps means me draw hierarchical trees and visualise my catalogue structure. Thanks to Alex Daws’ suggestion I tried the mind mapping tool, My genealogical ‘stuff’ falls into the categories depicted:

Sue's Genealogy Catalogue

Sue’s Genealogy Catalogue

For the interactive version follow this link:

I have included a selection of top level categories and expanded a few of them. On the right are the things I acquired from family and collaborators, and my personal documents. On the left are the things acquired from physical and digital archives.

Personal Collections

The personal collections are organised by their provenance, the person from whom the items came. This visual representation makes it easy for me to see I have omitted a helpful relative, Pat (how ungrateful am I!). I have expanded the part Raymond’s collection which I discussed in Provenance of a Personal Collection. The sub-categories reflect the use (e.g. probate) and history (e.g. belonged to Winnie) of the items.

Complete collections can be organised without taking account of possible future additions. The branches colour coded in yellow are complete. Raymond and Mabel are deceased, and personal study projects relate to courses completed.

The personal collection labelled Sue is my own. It includes collections that were created by my own life, the types of things discussed in Fresh Starts, my genealogy business records named Family Folk, and the results of my research such as blog posts. The category named Genealogical Research Collection is my personal sin bin. It’s arrangement reflects my early attempts to organise things, and indirectly documents my development as a researcher. Rather than rearrange things I have documented the existing arrangements.

Digital and Physical Archives

The left side of the source tree depicts my understanding of the arrangement of things I accessed through archives. I have expanded the top levels for just one record, the marriage of Joseph Wilson and Elizabeth Wilson at Claverley in 1808, that I discussed in Three Wilson-Wilson marriages and the Family History Library Experience.

The original marriage register is held by Shropshire Archives and the archive catalogue entry includes the hierarchy that shows how the marriage register fits into the archive’s collections:

Shropshire Archive catalogue

Shropshire Archive catalogue

Notice that the top level is missing from the archival catalogue. Parishes are collected together in a group denoted by P or XP, but there is no catalogue entry for this group. Many archive catalogues could be made more user friendly by the inclusion of top level groups and a visual interface. This catalogue entry also refers to the microfiche copy of the registers.

Catalogue entries for a marriage record

Catalogue entries for a marriage record

I have followed the archive catalogue in my source tree, but added in the missing parish level and separated out the microfiche version. The Family History Library transcript and microfilm are arranged by call number and film number, a peculiarity of that institution.

Digital archives typically consist of an index or database that may reference a collection of digital images. Database entries are accessed via search functions. The arrangement of digital image collection is similar, but not identical, to the arrangement of physical archive in this case. Some digital image collections differ substantially from their physical counterparts.

In addition to the original, there are 6 different versions of the marriage record. They were derived from the original either directly or indirectly via several different copying processes, but that is hard to show on my source tree.

Citations and Source Identification

Traditionally many academic disciplines cited published and unpublished works in the form of a bibliographic citation, but only included the data they collected in summary form. In many disciplines it is now recognised that the academic paper alone is no longer sufficient and the underlying data also needs to be shared. How to Cite Datasets and Link to Publications explores the issues and makes proposals for scientific data sets. Citing genealogical sources is more similar to citing scientific data than to citing finished works.

Genealogists typically want to pin point a single record or piece of data within a data set. For the marriage example the following locate the record within source items:

Original page & record number
Microfiche counted row and column numbers, record number
Transcript page number, record number
Microfilm Item number, counted image number, record number
Digital image browsing breadcrumb, image number
Database entries search terms

Genealogists need to know exactly which source item was used, because they differ in accuracy and reliability. My source tree distinguishes between the 7 source items, but does not make the relationships between them clear. Here is how I think each was derived:

Claverley marriage register & derivative sources

Claverley marriage register & derivative sources

Copying and processing potentially produces errors, so genealogists need to check against originals if possible. In the marriage example, I used the FamilySearch database to find the transcript and then checked the transcript against the microfiche copy of the original, because they were available at the time. Now I would use the high quality digital image that has since been published. The archive quite rightly restricts access to the original so that it is preserved.

The complicated-looking citations in Evidence Explained identify the source, the equivalent of my source tree. Multi-level citations, indicated by “citing”, give the relationships between derived versions and the original.

I have tackled some quite complex ideas in this post. I hope find some worth considering as your genealogy organisation systems develop. As Julie Goucher said, there is no one size fits all.

I thank Jill and all the panellists for challenging my assumptions, sharing their frustrations and confusion, and openly debating the issues. Conversations like this are valuable contributions that genealogy vendors and software developers need to hear. As a member of FHISO, I am listening.

© Sue Adams 2015