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Cataloguing – suggested procedure

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You should have a written procedure that explains the steps to follow when cataloguing objects. This suggested procedure is useful starting point. It is given as text and also as a workflow diagram. However you do it, your own procedure should meet the minimum requirements of the Spectrum standard.


Creating catalogue records


Create a record for each object, or group of objects, accessible by object number.

See Note 1 for guidance on the form that catalogue records might take and Note 2 for more on object history files. Your cataloguing policy should set out the kind of information to be recorded for each type of collection, but as a minimum the record should either contain or be linked to the core inventory information for the object or group:

If you do not have this information for each object (or group of objects) go to Inventory.


Add other important information.

Based on your cataloguing policy, and according to the type of object and the information available, record as many of the following as you need. For newly-acquired objects you should do this as soon as possible, rather than building up a backlog.

Object identification information

Object description information

Object history and association information

Field collection information

Object production information

Object owner’s contribution information

Reference information

Amendment history (information about changes to the catalogue)


Provide access to records via indexes.

Access to catalogue information should be provided by indexes and/or free-text retrieval. It should be appropriate to the nature of the collection, and might include access by, eg:

  • Object name.
  • Subject (eg using a standard classification scheme).
  • Artist, maker or manufacturer.
  • Source (eg donor or vendor).
  • Production date.
  • Associated people.
  • Associated places.

Maintaining catalogue records


Maintain links or cross-references to relevant information recorded during other procedures.

It is important to be able to access relevant information generated during other procedures when looking at an object’s catalogue record. Such information need not be copied into the catalogue in full, but there should be a cross-reference to it so that you and others know it exists and can find it in future. This may take the form of a reference number and, at its simplest, the collections management information in a catalogue record may comprise a series of reference numbers linking to records elsewhere.


Keep the catalogue secure, including digital backups and paper copies.

The museum catalogue is the most complete account of the history of each item, so it is essential to keep this information secure.

If a catalogue is computerised, backups should be made, with the frequency, method and responsibility defined in your policy and procedures. It may be difficult to back up a manual catalogue system; some museums use photocopying.


Improving catalogue records


Add information from documentation projects.

Results from Documentation planning.


Add information from a collections review.

Results from Collections review.


Add information arising from research, interpretation or other use.

Results from Use of collections.


Guidance notes


Note 1: Catalogue records

Catalogue information can be held in a series of individual records:

  • In a computerised database.
  • On pre-printed catalogue cards.
  • On loose-leaf sheets, which are filed numerically.

There is usually one record for each object (or group of objects). In computerised and manual systems, information within each catalogue record is sorted into a set of ‘pigeonholes’ known as ‘fields’. Each discrete piece of information such as the date an object was made or the name of donor, is held in a separate field. Information placed in these fields can be written in a consistent manner to aid indexing: rules can govern the words used, the order in which they are entered and any punctuation which may be required.

Computerised databases

There are a number of commercial computerised systems available which support the Cataloguing procedure (as well as many of the other Spectrum procedures). These are often referred to as ‘collections management systems’ (CMS). On the Collections Trust website you can find details of CMS software from the Spectrum Partners, suppliers who are committed to the development and promotion of Spectrum and are licensed to use it commercially. Many of these systems are Spectrum Compliant, which means they have been validated by Collections Trust and have a place to record every unit of information that users might need during any of the Spectrum procedures.

Pre-printed catalogue cards

Some museums use Collections Trust catalogue cards either as the basis of their main catalogue record, or for temporary inventory projects, where the data collected is later transferred to a CMS.

Note 2: Object history files

Not all your knowledge about the objects in your collections need be recorded in their catalogue records; indeed, in many cases, this would be almost impossible. Additional information (eg correspondence, notes, press cuttings, reports) can be held in object history files. Each folder should be marked with the relevant object number and filed in that order.

It can be helpful to draw attention to particularly useful information held in object history files (eg when making an acquisition note, ‘For full history see the informative letter from the donor in the object history file’).

Date created: 2017

Publisher: Collections Trust