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Archival Jargon Busters : Catalogue structure

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This blog was written by Katie Widdowson, Cataloguer.

The arrangement of archives is not always immediately obvious, and this can make it difficult for users to search archive catalogues efficiently to find the records they need. This blog will aim to explain how archive catalogues are structured and how this affects the requesting of records.

Understanding the hierarchy

Archive catalogues are structured in a vertical hierarchy which reflects the structure of the organisation, similar to a family tree. Thus, in the Parliamentary Archives, one strand of the catalogue is the House of Lords records. We start at the top with the House of Lords (HL), this then divides into various offices, such as the Parliament Office (HL/PO) and then into smaller offices such as the Public Bill Office (HL/PO/PU).

The letters in brackets represent the catalogue references. As you can see, they follow the structure down so you can clearly see where a record originated from.

Levels within the hierarchy

Broadly speaking, an archive catalogue has five major levels:

  1. Fonds – this is the record creator and user, for the purposes of this blog, the House of Lords
  2. Sub fonds – these are sub-divisions within the record creating organisation i.e. the Parliament Office exists within the House of Lords. This can be extended to sub sub fonds (i.e. the Public Bill Office) and so on until you reach the relevant office.
  3. Series – this is where the catalogue goes down to a specific type of record i.e. HL/PO/PU/1 is the Original Public Acts. This is also the point in the catalogue where the references start to include numbers.


photo of room with rolled parchments stacked on shelves.
In some cases, series can contain a large amount of records. This image shows the Original Act Room which holds some of HL/PO/PU/1.

Like fonds, there can be sub levels under a series. In the case of the original acts, they are further divided by year so that acts from 1666 have the sub-series refence HL/PO/PU/1/1666.

Photo of shelf with rolled parchment on it.
The Acts are divided down into sub series by year. Here is an example of what one sub series looks like. The coloured tags are used to aid retrieval, when the year changes, the colour of the tag changes.

4. File – these are the orderable unit. They comprise of a single retrievable thing, whether this is a bound volume, a box or, in the case of the   Original Acts, a roll. In most cases, the file’s reference will be a number, thus for the House of Commons Unprinted Papers, a file level reference would look like HC/CL/JO/10/19. Original Acts have a more unique file reference as we have to record the regnal year of the monarch and the Act number. Thus, the catalogue reference for the Coinage Act 1666, the third Act passed in 18th and 19th regnal year of Charles II, has the reference HL/PO/PU/1/1666/18&19C2n3.

handwritten document
The Coinage Act, 1666, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1666/18&19C2n3 
  1. Item – the Original Acts do not have items as one Act = one file. However, other parts of our collection do have items, thus in the House of Commons Unprinted Papers (HC/CL/JO/10), we have file level records for the boxes (i.e. HC/CL/JO/10/19) but then all of the papers within that box are numbered (i.e. HC/CL/JO/10/19/67).

You could imagine it as a set of nesting dolls. The file is an original act and so it sits within the original act series (HL/PO/PU/1). As the Acts were cared for by the Public Bill Office, they sit within that sub sub fonds (HL/PO/PU). The Public Bill Office formed part of the Parliament Office, so it sits within the Parliament Office sub fonds (HL/PO). And the biggest doll is the House of Lords, the record creator, which holds everything underneath it.

So, what can I order?

When ordering records from the Parliamentary Archives, you need to ensure that these are file or item level records. Staff are happy to retrieve a volume, box or roll for you to look at, but a series can be up to a whole room of records which is completely impractical to retrieve.

rolled document
The Coinage Act, 1666, Parliamentary Archives,

So, if your search has pulled up a result you find interesting, be sure to open it up and check the Level. If it’s a file or item you can order it. If it’s anything else, you’ll need to browse the hierarchy until you find a file or item level record.

screen grab of showing the catalogue entry for the Coinage Act 1666
Coinage Act 1666 catalogue entry

You can use the ‘Browse the Hierarchy function in a number of ways. If you find a series level record that looks interesting, you can use the hierarchy to go down the levels until you find a file or item level record which fits your research and which you can order. You can also go the other way. If you find a file or item level record which is of interest, you can go up the hierarchy into the series or sub-series level to see if there are any similar records of interest.

screen grab form showing the hierarchy of the series HL/BR/!
This is the House of Lords, Black Rod’s Department, Office files (HL/BR/1). As you can see, this hierarchy only goes down to file level so this would be the orderable unit.

I hope this guide proves useful and happy searching!

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1 comment

  1. Comment by hench club posted on

    thanks for sharing