Zen and the Art of Cataloguing

I promised you when I started writing this blog that it’d be a bit of an insight into the world of the cataloguing archivist, besides everything else, and as I have a little bit of time this morning I thought I’d run through what I’m up to today and talk about some of the other tasks involved with a project like this, so that you can get a bit of an idea of what a typical day might involve.

I always like to plan ahead in life and my cataloguing project is no different.   The volunteers have sorted out quite a volume of paperwork from the ‘loose documents’ bundles that accompany the main sessions bundles, having organised them by document type ready for cataloguing. Having scoped the amount to be done on Friday last week, I set myself the task of getting through a good chunk of this material on Monday and Tuesday this week, so that there’s lots of space available in the relevant sort boxes for volunteers to begin sorting again on Wednesday.

On a day like today when I’m focusing purely on doing this, the numbers of documents I get through are generally a little bit lower than usual, as there’s more organising of the catalogue to be done, in creating all the different file and item level entries. Generally speaking I’ll already have ploughed through the presentments, recognisances and wrappers for the sessions beforehand, so in reality I’m sort of ‘filling in’ the remainder of the records for that session in retrospect. I prefer working this way as it means I’ll know, roughly, who is before the court and for what reasons, which gives me a good working overview of that session while I’m cataloguing the material.

I’ll frequently be doing material from several different sessions, sometimes in different years, as I go. Today for example, I’ve sorted out a number of dsicharges and highways documents from Epiphany session 1740, and I’m moving on to some Easter 1741 examinations. There’s some Midsummer 1741 documents to come after that, and a little bit of 1742 documentation I’d like to get done too, if I have the time.

Although the volunteer-sorted documentation is my focus today, there are other things I like to get done on a day like today. A day like today gives me a great chance to do some research on matters arising from documents I’ve recently catalogued, for example. Besides interesting things cropping up in the catalogued material, often volunteers will do research using the sessions books and bring up interesting material referenced there, which I’ll then follow up when I have quiet moments, and make public on the blog, especially if we can find supporting documentation from the sessions bundles.

There’s also the matter of dealing with some of the more complicated deeds enrolled before the court, which might require a bit of a quiet moment to catalogue in more detail. One particular deed I catalogued last week had had it’s entire right hand edge chopped away at some point in its past, and as is often the case, most of the salient details seemed to have been written on that edge, which meant I had to be especially careful in working with the material to make sure I’d recorded it as accurately as possible.

Besides all of the above, of course, I like to press on with producing supporting material to the catalogue when I get a spare moment. I’m working on a number of user guides to help explain the remit of the Quarter Sessions and the general scope of the material, and to explain how the material might best be used by researchers. After all, cataloguing is not just about recording the material you have, but also about making it available and useable to the public. As I write these guides I keep a weather eye on the possibility of including aspects of what I’m writing about in talks, classes and presentations in the future.

The role of a cataloguing archivist is a bit different, then, to the role of an archivist working primarily in the searchroom, but I hope, with the above, to explain a little bit about what the role really involves on a day to day basis. There are other things I could talk about too and will do in future updates, but I felt that some of you might like to know a bit more about what it’s like to do a job like this. As you can probably tell from my updates I really enjoy the scope of this kind of work; no two days are ever the same, and I think most archivists I know, whether they’re cataloguing, working in the search room, doing outreach, or running research enqiries, will tell you that the variety of the job is one of the main attractions to working in the profession.

But besides that, in what other profession do you get to learn so much on a daily basis and get such a connection to the world of the past? I hope from the above, and from the rest of this blog, I can show you why this job is so enjoyable, and if anyone reading this is interested in becoming an archivist, or is in training, or is looking to volunteer one day, I can heartily recommend it. You won’t regret getting involved.


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