Lesson 3: Archives’ Classification Systems


All archives are unique from the perspective of the contents of the collections they house. As a result, they can present a different type of catalog search research requiring you to perform some advance research to make the best use of the catalog. Usually this can be accomplished by accessing guides, help, tips & tricks, or other online aids describing the contents and how to effectively use the catalog for best results.

Those of us who have used the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) Web site <www.archives.gov> know that there is no online catalog per se listed on the main page. Instead, there is a Search link on the main Web page and another titled Site Index. NARA uses neither the Dewey nor LOC classification structure. Its holdings are instead categorized into categories referred to as Record Groups (RGs). Each RG represents a specific group of records with subcategories used to further subdivide the holdings into more finite representations of the specific group collection. Using the Search facility on the main page, you can search for the phrase “record groups” and the search results will yield a listing of different NARA Branches and the RGs in each facility.

Records Groups are, fortunately for most researchers, less critical than knowing where to locate specific materials. That’s where the Site Index is more helpful. Using that link from the main NARA page presents a Web page with a set of A to Z links at the top on which you can click to reach that set of alphabetical links. Click on the letter C and scroll down to the link called Census. Clicking on that link takes you to the Census Records Web page at NARA on which you can access all the information about the U.S. federal censuses. Likewise, a click on the letter I allows you to scroll down to a link for Immigration (Records and Passenger Lists). You can click on that link and be taken to the page concerning all of NARA’s immigration holdings and how to access them.

But wait a minute! There actually is an online catalog at the Library of Congress. A click on the letter A at the Site Index shows, as the first item in the list, AAD (Access to Archival Databases). This is actually a catalog called the Archival Research Catalog, or ARC for short. ARC is the online catalog of NARA’s nationwide holdings in the Washington, DC area, Regional Archives and Presidential Libraries. ARC allows you to perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. Its advanced search functions also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic. ARC is, without doubt, the most efficient and effective facility at NARA to locate materials within its holdings.

Earlier I described the Library of Congress (LOC) Classification System, which really applies primarily to printed resources such as books, periodicals, and similar materials. The Library also holds other specialized collections and the primary ones are accessible through specialized catalog searches at the LOC Web site <www.loc.gov>. These include the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog (PPOC) and the Sound Online Inventory and Catalog (SONIC). This is another example of special, archival collections for which unique classification schemes have been devised and implemented.

The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, just outside London, is another whole collection of materials. With the merger of the former Public Record Office (PRO) and the Historical Manuscripts Collection (HMC) in 2004, The National Archives now holds perhaps the most diverse collection of materials in Europe, ranging from the Doomsday Book to the Prerogative Wills of Canterbury to government records of all types. Their former holdings are classified using what they refer to alternatively as class codes, record groups, or series. Many of these are arranged according to codes representing current or former governmental agencies. While leading a research tour to London in May of 2005, we spent an entire day at TNA and, in the course of my personal research, I accessed original records of the Colonial Office from 1775. The code assigned to these documents was CO (for Colonial Office) and dealt with the communications between the court of King George III and both the colonial governors and the Continental Congress convened in Philadelphia. The classification for this collection (box) of documents consisted of the class code of CO and a unique numeric reference code for the collection of materials. In some cases, another number representing a specific folio or piece number is required to allow you to order up a specific document. What is nice about TNA is that you can locate materials through their online catalog (previously known as PROCAT) by word or phrase, by optional year range, or by optional Department or Series. I entered the phrase “north carolina” and the Department code of CO. I was rewarded with 21 hits that showed the Catalogue Reference number, such as CO 412/5 which is North Carolina: Acts: 1771-1772. The catalog record contains two tabs, one being a Quick Reference description and the other being Full Details that may contain additional information of interest to help you differentiate between one holding and another. In addition, you can order the materials online prior to a visit to TNA and they will be waiting for you when you arrive.