Thursday, 2 May 2013

Cataloguing conundrums!

I've been somewhat amused by a small archival storm over in the United States, which has apparently been set off by something that I didn't actually say!

This time last week I gave a talk in Dundee at the Democratising or Privileging conference, giving a genie's perspective on the use of archives in Scotland. In the talk I expressed certain frustrations such as a lack of wifi at most facilities, lack of permission to take digital photos of items in most Scottish archives, various archaic practices and more - but I also listed some of the joys of the Scottish system, such as the integrated approach now being taken between local archives and the NRS with access to ScotlandsPeople and kirk session records across the country, and so on.

And then I mentioned cataloguing. As someone who spends a certain amount of time online, but also in archives, I personally believe that the cataloguing of archive collections is actually much more important that the digitisation of records - after all, if we don't know that a collection exists, how can we consult it? Digitisation, whilst also providing a level of convenience, is not always the be all and end all, and can often lead to problems in its own right - for example, the way that some materials are presented online affects the very way we engage with records. Browsing a parish register can provide a very different research experience to targetting a name by a keyword search. And the quality of digitisation can at time also be problematic - on a recent occasion I visited the NRS, for example, and attempted to view a digitised sasine record, only to find the handwriting so small that the resolution was too poor to cope, making it virtually impossible to read (and of course, once digitised, access is no longer permitted to the originals). I've also had issues with some digitised online newspaper resources, where the compression is so great that again, small text can often be illegible, and poorly treated by the OCR technology designed to make it searchable. I also made the suggestion that instead of trying to maintain a one-way top down control of the cataloguing/indexing process, archives could try to engage more with the genie community, via crowdsourcing projects - many of us are only too happy to contribute to online projects from Ancestry, FamilySearch etc, the option to create similar initiatives by archives in Scotland and the UK seems a bit of a no-brainer to me. Again, lots of issues in amongst that!

So I suggested that cataloguing is as important as digitisation, if not more so (something some may agree with, others may disagree with!). That sentiment, however, has been lost in translation somewhere along the line, to suggest that I was advocating item level cataloguing. Oops....

So what's the difference? In a nutshell, general cataloguing lets me know that a collection exists, e.g. "we've got Big Jimmy's estate papers, includes a few rental rolls from the 18th C, some letters to Canada, and a few charters" - but item level cataloguing is the physical cataloguing of every single item within a collection, listing the detail of each individually. The second costs considerably more in time, effort and money than the first. Item level cataloguing in the grand scheme of things would be lovely - but it would be completely impractical to do that for every collection on the planet. So most definitely not what I was suggesting at all.

Today many people start their research online, and as the brick walls begin to approach, it is the archives that can then help us - by a long shot, the amount of stuff digitised and online is miniscule compared to what still lies in vaults and repositories around the country. Catalogues act as a bridge to wean us away from one and into the other - the better the catalogue, the better the chance of success in finding resources that might smash that brick wall. I once visited Glasgow City Archives on a the basis of a catalogue entry that stated it held the annual AGM papers of a company my great grandfather worked for in Belgium. The catalogue details stated little more than that, but it was enough to let me know that some papers for that company existed in the archive - and when I subsequently examined the papers, one brief line in an AGM's minutes transformed my family story, confirming the death of my civilian great grandfather in the First World War. In many, if not most, cases it is all we need, but it is also an area where much still needs to be done - and that was the point I was making!

The debate can be followed at It's well worth a read for the comments which follow (and the transcript of what I actually said!), and provides an interesting insight into the issues raised in cataloguing.


My new book, Tracing Your Irish Family History on the Internet, is now available from Pen and Sword. My next Pharos Scottish course, Scotland 1750-1850: Beyond the Old Parish Registers, starts May 15th - see Time to smash a few brick walls...!

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