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.