Getting Started

Topics in this section will help you start up a community archive and decide what it is you wish to do.  It’s a good starting point and includes advice on cataloguing, collection care, funding and volunteers.



There is a lot of information available around managing an archive and you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. With a little research it’s possible to create a plan of action, and it may be best to start with contacting your local authority archivist – every council employs an archivist/ records manager. It is likely someone will ask what and how many records or items are in your collection.

Here’s a useful starting point: The National Archives


Keeping a simple list is the beginning of creating a catalogue and knowing what and how many items you have. Depending on the group’s computer skills it could be an Excel spreadsheet, or a word document, or a handwritten list. The benefit of a spreadsheet is you can search and quantify your collection and anyone with access to the spreadsheet can add to the list and save it. With little effort a simple spreadsheet can be turned into a comprehensive catalogue.

Useful guidelines on listing  from local authority East Refrewshire can be found here.


Knowing what materials are in your collection also helps with its care and ensures its availability for future generations. It may be mainly photographs and letters, but perhaps it includes old vinyl records or cassette tapes of oral history or short films on VHS or Super 8. Don’t forget about your files stored on CDs of floppy disks, your Facebook page or website. You want to keep a record of the group’s first digital record – remember handwritten letters are now emails, pamphlets are e-magazines and all need to be kept.

Depending on the size of your archive collection, once it has been listed it is time to consider the next steps.

Collection Care

How long do you expect the collections in your archive to last?  Collections care strives to lessen the rate of damage and deterioration through research and carrying out tasks which improve the safety of your collections. The areas of particular concern with regard to the sources of damage include: environmental conditions, collections maintenance, integrated pest management, emergency response and collections management. We have dedicated a section on our website to Collection Care in Community Archives:


Archive catalogues have a hierarchical structure, which simply means that things are arranged in levels. Catalogues go from the very broad to the narrow, with ‘fonds’ being the broadest and ‘item’ being the narrowest. The fonds level is the highest level of description in an archive catalogue where you describe the person or institution/group that created the records. Description of the item is usually more detailed.

Watch Katy Kavanagh, Senior Archivist at Aberdeen City Council, Aberdeen City & Aberdeenshire Archives, as she gives a step by step guide to cataloguing your collections that aims to be realistic and user-friendly.

Useful Resources

A short blog on description of a catalogue with visual examples from the British Postal Museum can be found here.

Community Archives and Heritage Group Cataloguing Guidelines

The Group for Literary Archives and Manuscripts (GLAM) Guidance for Cataloguing Literary Archives and Manuscripts.

The National Archives Guidance for Volunteer Cataloguing in Archives

Women holding the minute hand from the clock on the tower of the Singer Sewing Machine, West Dunbartonshire Council Archives


You may want to increase the number of people who access your collections. It is a great way to promote your group and encourage other people to join.  Before listing your collections on your website or Facebook, consider how and where people can visit your collection. It is a secure place and who will deal with enquiries and arrange access?

It’s important to consider who owns the items in your collection as this effects copyright and laws on intellectual property. This is something to note when listing and cataloguing your collections.

SCA Copyright Guidance

The National Archives Copyright Related Rights

Book: Tim Padfield Copyright for Archivists and Record Managers (5th ed. 2015)


Thinking about the future and making sure the collection is available. This can involve recruiting volunteers and applying for funding.

Part of succession planning is caring for collections, more details here:

Voluntary Sector Archives Guidance

Funding in Scotland

Museums Galleries Scotland Funding

The Heritage Fund