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Cataloging

A repository depends on collections management activities to ensure the long-term care, preservation, and protection of its accessioned collections. The material remains and associated records, including digital data, of an archeological collection must be cataloged, then labeled, to make them accessible for a variety of uses. There are some differences in the steps and issues involved in cataloging material remains as opposed to associated records, which are presented below.

Cataloging Objects

(photo) Cataloging glass sherds at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park.
Cataloging glass sherds at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Photo courtesy of Museum Management Program, National Park Service.

Cataloging is the process of recording all primary information about an object. With archeological collections, it also involves assigning a catalog number to an object that is specifically related to its archeological context or provenience and is often related to its accession number. While an accession number is usually applied to one collection or group of objects, the catalog number is specific to an object or a lot of like objects. The key purposes of cataloging are to record information that is useful for identification, organizing whole collections, and providing information to researchers and staff who want to use them.

While there are no absolute standards for cataloging archeological collections used by all repositories, there are some common categories used by many. Some federal (e.g., National Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers) and state agencies catalog standardized information. As well, many repositories provide guidance on cataloging information they require. Typical cataloging information for objects include:

Data Field Example
Accession #
Catalog #
Object name
Object description
Material of manufacture
Form (object type)
Quantity
Measurements (when needed, e.g., wgt., hgt., circumference)
Conservation & condition
Cataloger name & date
Location in repository
98-112
98-112-938
White paste earthenware
Body sherd; no decoration
Ceramic, earthenware
Bowl
3
12 gms.

No conservation, stable condition
J. Doe, 8/10/98
TSA9.12 (tier rack 9, box 12)

Additional categories for archeological objects should include:

  • site number
  • state site number
  • provenience/collection unit
  • state and county
  • UTM coordinates

The information collected during cataloging then goes into a catalog list or catalog file that includes information on all the objects in a collection. This information is valuable for grouping objects, and provides another link between objects, lots, associated records, and digital data in a project collection. Some of this information is sensitive, especially UTM coordinates of a site and excavation unit, and should not be accessible to the public. Therefore, it may be kept in the original accession file and linked to the catalog file by the numbers assigned.

Now, many repositories use computerized catalog systems. This allows for easier, quicker, and more complex sorting, grouping, and identification of objects for a number of uses. It also facilitates updating the data.

Archival Processing and Cataloging Associated Records

(photo) Technicians appraise document collections.
Document appraisal activities at the Stabilization Laboratory of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District's Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections. From the photograph collection of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis District.

The process of cataloging associated records involves some key steps and considerations before cataloging can begin. One is an initial assessment of the collection, which focuses on identifying the range of document types, condition, any legal issues involved, and further processing and preservation needs. It also involves providing basic care to individual items, particularly segregating those that require special treatments (e.g., folded oversized maps) and conducting minor conservation treatments. The latter may include dry cleaning, mending small tears with archival mending tissue tape, or humidification and flattening.

Another key step is archival processing of the records in a collection. During processing, the archivist researches and records the provenance of the collection, including information on its origin and history, and successive transfers of ownership and custody. Archival processing is based on the principle of original order, the arrangement of a collection of records as established by the creator. Within the original order, series and sub-series are identified, which function as natural sub-divisions rather like chapters in books, for long-term management. Common series and sub-series arrangements are chronological, topical, numerical, or alphabetical. During archival processing, archivists also weed out unnecessary duplicate records that have low value.

Following arrangement, archivists develop finding aids to the collection. This entails creating an archival records description and management system that is detailed enough to provide researchers and others with quick and easy access to the records they need. The level or detail of description for a record usually depends on its research value and anticipated use or needs -- the greater the value and anticipated use, the greater the detail. Finding aids are useful tools for organizing and finding description information. They generally include information on: creator or project; box, series, folder and/or item listings; volume of materials; type of record (paper, photographs, maps, etc.); intellectual contents and arrangement; condition; and any limitations on use or access. The archival profession has recently finalized a standard for archival finding aids in both paper and Web-encoded form called Encoded Archival Description (EAD.)

Archival cataloging itself follows a standard called Machine Readable Cataloging (MARC) and focuses on the collection, not the individual item. However, an archival collection may be composed of a number of components that were donated or acquired over a period of time in a series of accessions. In these cases, the components are still cataloged as one collection. Sometimes cataloged at a lower level than the collection, such as series, are individual items that are in an exhibit or on long-term loan, are at risk due to condition or value, or are restricted due to copyright, privacy constraints, donor restrictions, or federal statute, such as the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. Individually cataloged items with sensitive or restricted data usually are separated from the collection, replaced by a separation sheet on acid-free paper that provides the new location, and are placed in a restricted storage location.

The catalog record for each archival collection and occasional individual item should contain standardized information, at a minimum, on:

  • collection title
  • inclusive dates of the collection
  • accession number
  • catalog number
  • location(s) of the collection
  • medium of records (form/genre)
  • creator(s) of the collection
  • item count or quantity by linear foot
  • collection arrangement (a listing of series and sub-series)
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