Originally posted on 28 May 2012.
The catalogue of the Lebus archive is now online. For more information, visit Archives on the Museum of Childhood website.
This fascinating collection contains a large number of letters written by Anthony Lebus to his parents during his time at preparatory school, Eton and Oxford, which, together with a small quantity of his school work, provide an exceptionally intimate and detailed narrative of an upper middle class child’s education during the 1920s and 1930s. Unusual in that they describe a near-complete childhood, from the first days at school to graduation from university, they are also valuable in being written from a child’s perspective, and reveal Anthony’s thoughts not only about his school, but also his impressions of the changing world around him. For example, these drawings of the early airships and aircraft.
Lizzie Morgan, who catalogued this collection, has previously written a blog explaining a bit more about the Lebus family and introducing some of the highlights of the collection and, below, explains in more detail how she went about cataloguing the Lebus material.
Catalogues are a crucial tool for archivists; they provide an inventory of the contents of an archive, facilitating intellectual and physical control over the records. Creating an archive catalogue involves two main stages: arrangement and description, and it is predominantly the first of these that sets archival cataloguing apart from that undertaken by museum curators or librarians. A museum catalogue, for example, records each object as a stand-alone entry, capturing information about its provenance and form, but not about its contextual relationship to other items in the collection. It is these contextual relationships that are central to archival cataloguing. It is useful to know the form and content of a minute book, say, but it is even more valuable to understand that it is part of a series of minute books produced by a committee and that there are related agenda and administrative records within the collection.
In order to convey these relationships, an archival catalogue requires a hierarchical structure. The highest level (known as the ‘fonds’) in this structure records the creator of the archive, which for my catalogue was the Lebus family. The level below (the ‘sub-fonds’) can be used to describe particular functions or divisions of the fonds, for example a department within a company or a particular member of a family. My initial instinct when looking through the Lebus archive was to create a sub-fonds for each member of the Lebus family. However, it quickly became apparent that this would necessitate reorganising some of the material into different files, thus disturbing the original order of the material (a cardinal sin in archival cataloguing!). This was particularly the case with a small number of letters written by Oliver and Barbara Lebus that had been interspersed with those written by Anthony Lebus. In order to create a sub-fonds for Oliver and Barbara, their letters would have had to be removed and re-filed, destroying the context provided by the existing arrangement.
The higher levels described above are purely conceptual (i.e. they do not describe any tangible records) and serve to tell the user something of the environment in which the material was created. It is at series level that you start to find actual records; a series is a group of records that have the same form or that were created by the same process. As I looked through the Lebus archive, it became evident that it comprised a number of series, including correspondence, photographs and schoolwork. A series can be further divided into sub-series, and my initial arrangement of the collection included sub-series of ‘Year Files’ and ‘Undated Correspondence’ within Anthony Lebus’ correspondence. However, this arrangement of sub-series did not contribute anything significant to the understanding of how the material had been created and used, and the final arrangement, therefore, comprises only fonds, series, file and item levels. The final two levels, file and item, record individual files or records. As archival cataloguing is a very time-consuming process, it is often not possible to describe each letter, say, contained in a file, and catalogue entries therefore often provide a general outline of a file’s contents, perhaps highlighting anything unusual or of particular interest.
I had two weeks to arrange and describe the Lebus archive, which afforded me the luxury of being able to read or scan the majority of the collection and draw attention to the interesting bits. Hopefully as the collection becomes more widely consulted, users can identify further material that warrants a mention. This should ultimately result in a richer, more useful catalogue that will open up the Lebus archive to as wide an audience as possible, which is surely one of the fundamental aims of archival cataloguing.