A side-door into ISAD(G)

Cataloguing is basically problem solving. You have  a jumble of stuff and you want to get it into an order that helps people understand what’s in it and how it all relates to each other.

To do this, it’s not just a case of referencing our international standard ISAD(G). Sometimes, the basic elements of ISAD(G) that you must include for every catalogue aren’t enough. However, nor are the other twenty-odd elements. I’ve recently found that it can make more sense to put your efforts into a sort of side-on approach in order to make it work.

To illustrate: the Manchester Black and Minority Ethic Community collection I recently catalogued for the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Center.

This collection came about through an amalgamation of three different collections: the Manchester BME collection (already at the Centre but uncatalogued), a box of library resources (already at the Centre, totally random and kind of catalogued but pre-standard) and a new acquisition from a community group of loads of files. These were all now going to be one single resource collection as there was no point in having three separate collections that basically all did the same thing.

In total, there are easily thousands of items in the collections. The Centre’s cataloguing guidelines want detailed item-level description. Now, I’m happy to sit there for days on end and do an item-level description. However, it’s not actually needed. There’s no point in detailing each leaflet, each annual report, each newsletter and newspaper clipping if it’s not of vital assistance to the researcher.

So, I asked the Centre, “What are the most common things people ask you for information on? Is it location? Topic? Ethnicity? Format?” What I’m wanted to know is, how should I arrange the material that would be useful to researchers? After all, there’s no point in cataloguing something if the catalogue isn’t effective and efficient.

The answer was that it was all of the above. Okay, so there’s no one winner for the overall arrangement. However, it’s interesting that people ask for all of those things and that is something I need to represent in the catalogue itself.

The Manchester BME collection had an arrangement. It was arranged into loose topics such as health, education etc. The new acquisition was arranged in a way helpful to the community organisation that created it but which didn’t immediately make sense to anyone else. So, a mash-up was in order.

I went ahead and chose a group of topics based on the material I was working with. Some were reflective of the old collections and some entirely new such as women, young people, cultural events. Ignoring the doctrine of original order, which advises that collections should be arranged in a way that reflects their intended function, I went crazy on the material, weeded out more than half of it that bore no relevance at all (hundreds of leaflets for shows and events not related to Manchester’s BME community. That was great fun.) and rearranged the whole lot.

That’s the arrangement sorted, then. Now, where to put the information of location, format, ethnicity etc? Well, there’s a sort of side-door into ISAD(G) that sits in the Centre’s cataloguing templates: keywords. ISAD(G) does sort of have this as Access Points but this is more to do with known proper nouns such as location, family name, business, event etc. Most of these didn’t work for this collection and the Centre didn’t have a controlled language or list of keywords to draw from.

Without the time to develop an index, I chose to have a controlled language isolated to this collection which would pick out all of the ways in which researchers may approach it. I would list all the keywords that described the material in that topic and would list them in the same order for each topic. A catalogue entry then looked like:

  • Ref no: 8/1
  • Title: Women
  • Extent: 2 boxes
  • Dates: 1980s-2000s
  • Scope and Content: Material relating solely to and created for women in BME communities, services for BME women and by women’s BME community organisations.
  • Access: Open
  • Keywords: women, gender, sexual health, health, leaflet, poster, minutes, newsletter, Manchester Women’s Bangladeshi Organisation, Ananna, Wai Yin, African, Bangladeshi, Chinese, Pakistani, Levenshulme, Longsight, Moss Side, Rusholme

And on and on. Each entry would have the keywords in the same order: topic, format, individuals/organisations, ethnicity, location. Some entries would have cross overs such as health. There would be some items about women’s health specifically, so I had to chose whether that was going in “Women” or “Health” topics. Similarly, there were some events that women’s community organisations hosted or ran that were not solely for women at all. Would they be under “Women” by virtue of their parent organisation, or under “Cultural Events” by virtue of their purpose?

Whichever I chose, I knew I had to keep my methodology consistent. So, I chose to highlight women over the other theme of health but make use of the keywords “health” and “sexual health” in the catalogue for “Women” and add in a note about women’s sexual health in the “Health” topic. I chose to pop non-women-centric events in the “Cultural Events” topic but include the name of the organisation which hosted/ran the event as a keyword.

The majority of effort, then, was not expended on the traditional handful of necessary fields in ISAD(G) but by making consistent and liberal use of the side-door field, keywords.

When it’s up online, have a poke and let me know what you think.

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