1. Introduction: why document?

Few, if any, established archives can truthfully claim that the documentation of their collections is satisfactory or adequate. Most will admit to a sizeable backlog of material which is at best poorly catalogued or at worst completely uncatalogued. Older archives will attribute such shortcomings to the failures or faulty priorities of previous generations of archive keepers, but enquiries about their current practice will often disclose that the backlog is not shrinking, and may not even be static. This state of affairs is also common to many archives created too recently to have previous generations of administrators to whom blame can be attributed. The truth is that it is not only in the past that cataloguing and record-keeping generally have failed to be accorded a high level of priority in archives' policy.

The reasons for this are not difficult to find. The task of cataloguing is undramatic, its only urgencies are self-imposed, and its visible benefits on the whole are unspectacular and slow to materialise. Large backlogs of uncatalogued material, after all, have not inhibited the survival of archives into the present. An archive that is not growing, an archive whose collection is not being used by its intended audience or customers, and an archive whose collection is deteriorating are all in different ways obviously failing. An archive with less than perfect documentation, on the other hand, is merely making life less easy than it might be for its staff and users -or so it seems. Hence the concentration in a new archive on building a collection, and in an established archive on the technical care of the collection and the improvement of service to users; hence, too, the repeated decision, in the face of pressure for economies, that the archive's cataloguing section is the one which may be reduced, relatively or absolutely, with least disruptive effect on the archive as a whole. Until more secure and prosperous times arrive, why catalogue?

There is more than special pleading, however, behind the argument of cataloguers that the perspective and priorities just outlined are wrong. The task of cataloguing, or rather of documentation generally, should be seen as central to all aspects of archive administration. An acquisitions policy can be effectively pursued only if the decision makers know the material already in the archive and the gaps in the collection. The work of technical care and preservation of the collection depends on adequate record keeping which, if not actually part of the cataloguing procedure, has several points of contact with it -at the simplest level, archival effort may be wasted in the unknowing care of separately acquired duplicate copies of the same recording. An adequate service to the public cannot be achieved or maintained without the provision of catalogues and indexes of high quality - the personal knowledge of archive staff is no substitute, as any archive which has lost such a human encyclopaedia to accident, illness or a new job can testify. A poorly documented archive is thus at risk in all its activities, and an inadequate cataloguing effort can only increase the level of risk.