Cataloguing (Spectrum 5.0 consultation draft)

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Use this procedure to manage the information that gives your objects meaning. Cataloguing is not an end in itself, but a way to record and retrieve what is known about your objects.

Most museums create some kind of structured catalogue record for each object, or group of objects, either on computer or cards. Such records give an at-a-glance summary of key facts and they can be indexed so you can find information when you need it. Catalogue records can also cross-refer to other relevant information held on file or published elsewhere.

Catalogue records are more than the inventory-level minimum that tells you an object exists and where it is. If you have met the Inventory requirements you know the numbers and locations of everything in your collection, but the names might be very general: ‘pot’, ‘postcard’, ‘drawer of butterflies’, etc. Inventory-level records cannot tell you which pots are Roman, which postcards show your town in the 1920s, or which butterflies were collected by a noted Victorian naturalist.

Cataloguing fleshes out those bare bones with as much – or as little – extra information as you need. It gets down in writing knowledge your team already carries in their heads, and gives you somewhere to store new facts as they come to light. No museum has finished cataloguing its collections, because there is always more to learn.

You may need to catalogue high-value objects to a standard specified by your insurers. The ObjectID standard, which requires photographs too, is used internationally to help recover stolen items.

Once you have met at least the minimum Inventory requirements, think less about ‘tackling the backlog’ than how you can capture the knowledge you will build through exhibition research and other projects. See Documentation planning for more advice on how to break cataloguing down into manageable chunks.

This is a Spectrum primary procedure. UK museums must meet the standard set out below to fulfil the requirements of the Museum Accreditation Scheme. Note that Spectrum does not specify any particular level of cataloguing beyond the minimum needed to meet the Inventory standard. It does, however, ask you to think about the ‘core’ catalogue information you need and how you will achieve that.

The Spectrum standard

You must have a policy on cataloguing. This could either be a standalone document or part of a wider collections management policy. Either way, you should include answers to these questions:

  • What is your broad approach to cataloguing different parts of your collection? (eg are some parts catalogued as individual objects and others at group-level only)
  • Are you aiming to meet any external cataloguing standards? (eg using templates, classifications or terminologies agreed within subject specialisms)
  • Beyond the inventory-level minimum, what should be in a ‘core’ catalogue record for different parts of your collection?
  • If you have not already met your ‘core’ standards, what are your priorities for doing so?
  • How will you ensure names, dates, places and other keywords are recorded consistently?
  • What catalogue information will you make available to your users, and how?
  • How will you protect confidential information, including personal data?
  • For new accessions, what is your target time for creating the agreed ‘core’ catalogue record?
  • How will you make sure that new information arising from other procedures is referenced in catalogue records?

You must have a written procedure that explains the steps to follow when cataloguing objects. Spectrum’s suggested procedure is a useful starting point, and is available as a workflow diagram or as a text file you can edit. However you do it, your own procedure must meet the following minimum requirements:

Minimum requirement Why this is important See (cross-references to be added in final version)
You have a catalogue record for every object (or, where appropriate, group of objects) that meets the minimum standard of the Inventory procedure. You have a basic framework to which you can add more significant information over time in line with your cataloguing policy.
Catalogue records are linked to the objects they describe via unique accession numbers that are securely attached or marked onto the items themselves. You do not confuse objects that might look similar.
Catalogue records cross-refer to relevant information held in your system (whether on paper or digitally) or available elsewhere. All the relevant information about an object is available for its management and use.

You do not waste time researching an object unaware of previous work.

Your system can reliably retrieve relevant catalogue information to meet the needs of users. Your users can easily access information about your collections.

You do not waste time trawling through search results that are not what you wanted.

You capture relevant information resulting from other procedures in a timely way. Your catalogue records are up-to-date.

You can re-use exhibition text to improve your online collection database.

You keep an up-to-date backup of your catalogue records. You do not risk losing many years’ work in the event of a fire or other disaster.


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  1. General Comments Applicable to all procedures: The inclusion of references to policies is beneficial but many of the questions that should be covered are more procedural than policy and would sit better within an organisation’s individual procedures than at the higher policy level. It isn’t clear how these questions sit with PAS 197 and Accreditation and could be difficult to answer in a general collections management policy without this running into many pages. The use of simpler terms and clearer language again is to be welcomed but there is a concern about the use of ‘you’ throughout this document. Without defining this term it can easily be read as an individual and therefore places the emphasis on a single person within an organisation to take responsibility for all these activities. This is a change from Spectrum 4.0 where the emphasis was at an organisational level and allowed the document to be used for advocacy to Trustees and Senior Management for the importance of these activities and how they affect those at an organisational level. Without clarity that the responsibility sits at an organisational level through the definition of ‘you’ this has the potential to de-value the nature of these activities and reduce support from senior management.
    It would also be beneficial to include references to other sources of guidance and legislation in the supporting notes where applicable and available although this will vary from country to country – such as ISAD(G)
    Comments specific to this procedure: Within the procedure itself under setting up the catalogue it reads ‘ Your cataloguing policy should’ but doesn’t complete the sentence
    Possibly examples of catalogue records may be helpful and cross references to sources of terminology would also be particularly useful to assist with standardising approaches and sharing information

  2. What document(s) / paperwork should be generated to meet this standard? eg a Catalogue (hard copy or digital); an Inventory (hard copy or digital); Examples of Catalogue and Inventory records may be helpful.

  3. As a Professional Archivist working in a Museum I follow the International Standard for Archival Description (ISAD(G) for cataloguing. Whilst I would not expect SPECTUM to go into detail about this, I think it would be a good opportunity, in this new edition, to at least acknowledge its existence and direct users to it for further information.

  4. A suggestion to help with Tanya’s point about marking: perhaps replace ‘unique accession numbers that are securely attached or marked onto the items themselves’ with ‘unique accession numbers that are physically associated with the items themselves’?

  5. I find this slightly oversimplified and a bit woolly.
    We catalogue objects to reflect curatorial knowledge about them, to provide access to the records from a variety of angls, and thence to the public.
    The Catalogue replaces published catalogues in a sense.
    We do not just use exhibition information for COL.
    We do not always have a number marked on or attached to the object, you completely miss out coins and medals, these have tickets. Also, the identification is not to prevent us from ‘confusing’ objects, it is to associate information with the actual object, to identify it.
    Consistency can only be achieved by having some for of terminologies and guidelines on what to record for different types of objects.
    Shame we were so engrossed with replacing our Collections Database this year, as I should have contributed to this more directly I feel, as I train people to catalogue!

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Date created: 2017

Author: Collections Trust

Publisher: Collections Trust