Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Art of Cataloguing

One of the central duties of an archivist is of course to facilitate access and this is largely acheived through a catalogue. This allows users to search and see exactly what material is held by a repository as well as providing some background detail or context about the person or organisation to whom the papers belong. The catalogue is structured rather like a family tree which should reflect the relationships between the documents. As a central element of the Archivist's role, I have been keen to get some experience of cataloguing and the different methods of achieving it. Therefore, during the last few months I have started cataloguing a small collection of material which is known as the Edwin Chirgwin Archive.

Edwin Chirgwin was a Cornishman born in 1892 in Newlyn and passed away in 1960. Throughout his life he was an ardent supporter of Cornish history, culture and language, writing poetry, stories, historical essays and giving lectures on these topics which so fascinated him. In 1932 he became a Bard of the Gorsedd of Cornwall and adopted the bardic name of Map Melyn (Son of the Mill).

The collection we have includes lecture notes and essays on the ethnographical make up of the Cornish people, the stone monuments of Cornwall, including Trethevy Cromlech and Boscawen-Un, as well as observations on churches and other historical subjects and folklore from within the County. There is also a significant amount of his poetry, but also stories written in the cornish dialect about local people and events that took place, although it is not always clear whether these are fictional accounts or true stories. There is a suggestion that at least some really happened as Chirgwin includes notes alluding to the fact that some characters at the time of writing were still alive.

Progress has been good with each item now entered onto the CALM database with a temporary running number. The next part of the process was to decide how the catalogue would be structured which is not without its issues when considering personal papers. If, for instance, you were dealing with an organisation, a provenance based structure reflecting the management hierarchy may be employed. This would begin with the organisation as a whole at the top e.g. Sweet Chocolate Company (known as the fonds or collection) and beneath that may be the Company Board and beneath that the various departments within the firm such as HR, finance department, marketing department etc. In some companies however, structures may have changed or may remain unknown. In that case a more functional structure may be adopted. This means rather than using the creating department as you would for a provenance based structure, you may use headings such as governance, sales and operations to arrange the collection. When applying this conundrum to personal papers the provenence is the creator which forms the fonds itself, therefore the supporting structure may well consist of functional groupings according to the persons different responsibilities or roles. The important thing is that the structure should best represent the person rather than an imposed order which has no meaning in context to the person.
With the Chirgwin papers it was unclear as to the source of the stories, many in Cornish dialect. Some referred to actual people, but it was not clear whether all the stories were true, old tales handed down from previous generations or entirely fictional. This meant our arrangement had to be carefully considered so as not to invent a new function for Chirgwin as a short story writer. Instead, we termed the material 'Accounts in Cornish Dialect' in an effort to avoid this, but also to encompass the possible variations as to the source of the stories. Another interesting issue for cataloguing was the fact that there was material in the Cornish language, and so to avoid making assumptions only minimal descriptions could be recorded. There was one record, a scrapbook, which did not appear to have any correlation with the rest of the material. After some deliberation as to where in the structure it should go we finally opted for it to remain separate under its format heading of scrapbook. Hence the final tree now has the following sub fonds: poetry, lectures, accounts in Cornish dialect, essays, translations and scrapbook. Although using format is not a recommended approach the item in question did not fit comfortably amongst the other groupings.

Many of the collections held at the Archive and Special Collections Department are fairly large and so it would be unlikely I would finish them before leaving in August. To be able to do a relatively small collection like this one has been really useful as it has enabled me to experience the full process from start to finish and to see the different considerations and issues that can arise.

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