Cataloguing Scientific Archives

Paving the way to cataloguing scientific archives.

To ensure maximum access and discoverability there are a number of steps which we take prior to cataloguing scientific archives. As a facilitator, the CSA’s role is to:

  1. Identify the most significant and important scientific archives
  2. Negotiate with the creators and owners to ensure that the archives will be available to future researchers and historians
  3. Identify an appropriate archival institution able and willing to care for the archives and ensure that they are stored securely and made available to researchers
  4. Ensure that their content is discoverable, by creating descriptive catalogues

Why create a catalogue?

Once the future of the archives is secure, the CSA works to ensure that the scientific content is discoverable, by creating descriptive catalogues. Large volumes of paperwork can be generated in the course of a career: lab notebooks, photographs, correspondence, research papers and so on, which in some cases may occupy hundreds of metres of shelving. Sorting and describing the material in a catalogue makes the content readily discoverable. The CSA will catalogue an archive in advance of transfer to a permanent home. (It may be possible that cataloguing could be carried out by the preserving institution, with the CSA’s support.)

The main point is always to produce a catalogue to the highest professional standards.

Typical process for cataloguing scientific archives.

Cataloguing scientific archives involves systematically organising and describing the materials within the collection to facilitate their discovery, access, and use. It typically follows a series of steps, which can be summarised as follows:

  1. Planning: prior to commencing the cataloguing process, it is important to establish clear goals and objectives for the archive. This includes determining the scope of the collection, identifying any existing organisational structures, and defining the level of detail desired in the catalogue records.
  2. Survey and inventory: conduct a comprehensive survey of the materials in the archive to assess the contents, formats, and condition of the items. Create an inventory or preliminary list of the materials, which will serve as a starting point for cataloguing.
  3. Establish a hierarchy: develop a hierarchical structure for the archive. This involves determining the broad categories or series under which the materials will be grouped. For example, a collection of personal papers may be organized into series such as correspondence, photographs, manuscripts, etc.
  4. Creating a cataloguing system: select a cataloguing system or framework that best suits the archive’s needs. Commonly used systems include Dublin Core, MARC (Machine-Readable Cataloguing), or Encoded Archival Description (EAD). This step involves establishing the fields and standards for recording information about the materials. These might includes titles, creators, dates, subjects, and physical descriptions.
  5. Assigning unique identifiers: develop a system for assigning unique identifiers to each item in the collection. These identifiers could be barcode numbers, accession numbers, or any other unique identifier that helps in identifying and tracking specific items.
  6. Descriptive cataloguing: start creating detailed catalogue records for each item or group of items within the archive. This includes capturing essential information like titles, dates, creators, extent, and physical characteristics. Additionally, consider capturing contextual information, such as the historical significance or relationships between different items.
  7. Arrangement and organisation: determine the physical arrangement of the materials within the archive, such as arranging them chronologically, by subject, or using any other logical system. This arrangement should align with the hierarchical structure established earlier.
  8. Metadata creation: create metadata records that summarise the key information about each item in a standardised format. This metadata can be embedded within the catalogue records or stored separately in a database. Metadata helps users locate and retrieve specific items based on their attributes.
  9. Preservation and conservation considerations: during cataloguing, it’s important to identify any preservation or conservation needs for the materials. This may involve assessing fragile items, identifying appropriate storage solutions, and prioritising conservation efforts.
  10. Database or system implementation: decide on the platform or software to store and manage the catalogue records. This could be a specialised archival management system or a general-purpose database. Ensure that the chosen system accommodates the cataloguing standards, metadata schema, and search functionality required for the archive.
  11. Quality control and review: regularly review and evaluate the catalogue records for accuracy, consistency, and completeness. Perform quality checks to ensure adherence to established cataloguing standards. Make necessary revisions or enhancements.

Cataloguing an archive is an ongoing process that requires continuous maintenance, updates, and improvements as new materials are acquired or discovered

Accessibility and outreach.

Once the cataloguing process is complete, you can make the catalogue records accessible to users through a designated interface or portal. This will allow you to promote the archive’s availability to researchers, scholars, and the public through outreach activities, such as online exhibitions, educational programmes, or publications. The CSA can provide further guidance on how best to make the archival content accessible and discoverable to the widest possible audience.

For further information please contact us at