Course:3: Processing
Lesson:Lesson 4: Description


Most historical records programs use some kind of catalog to point researchers to the collections they are looking for. Your catalog may take the form of a card catalog made up of index cards arranged in specific ways, a database, a complex, computerized public access system, or even a simple list of collections.

No matter what form it takes, your catalog is the main point of access to your collections.

Catalog Entries

You will create a catalog entry for each collection that has been completely processed and is available for research. An entry should consist of at least the following informational elements:

  • Title of collection
  • Provenance (creator or source) of the collection
  • Dates the collection covers
  • A unique collection number
  • A brief (one or two sentence) description of the contents of the collection, if the title is not an adequate description 

Resources icon




The library and archival communities have created rules and tools for cataloging. If you want to learn more about these formalized cataloging rules, take a look at:
Describing Archives:  A Content Standard.  Click here.

Card catalog
Your catalog may or may not be paper-based. It could be a simple list of collections.





Is A Catalog Entry Enough?

Some collections may only need a catalog entry in order to make them adequately accessible for researchers. Small collections, consisting of a single or few items, are often described using only a catalog entry.

How do you know if a catalog entry is the only necessary description? Put yourself in the user's shoes! Ask yourself how persons looking for the information contained in the collection would look for it.  What would they need to know in order to identify the collection as the source they need?

Generally, if a collection consists of a single record series and is relatively small in size a catalog entry will be adequate.  Some examples include:

Ada Elder Autograph Book 1920
One volume
Call Number:  MSS 98


William Banister School Records 1910
1 cubic foot
Call Number:  MSS 45


Christ Church Baptismal Records 1930-60
Arranged alphabetically by last name.
Box 1:  A – H
Box 2:  I – R
Box 3: S – Z
Call Number:  MSS 151

In these cases, researchers gain enough information from the catalog to understand what the records are, where they came from, and whether they are likely to have useful information.

A catalog entry alone won’t provide adequate information to a user when collections are larger and more complex. For example:

Jenny Fox Collection 1906-10
10 cubic feet
Call Number: MSS 130


Burleigh Company Records 1880-1940
7 cubic feet
Call Number: MSS 40


Barbara Jones Papers 1875-1900
15 cubic feet
Call Number: MSS 202

In these cases a catalog entry won’t provide enough information for researchers to find what they need. When the user needs a more detailed description of the collection, you will need to create a finding aid.


Card catalog