Archival Cataloguing of the Chief Secretary’s Office Registered Papers

By Dr Julie Brooks, Project Archivist


The registered papers from 1818 to 1852 comprise some 815 boxes, containing an estimated 250,000 items. The current catalogue for 1818-1822 contains 10,854 item and file descriptions, with an estimated 40,000 items processed.

Two full-time project archivists are responsible for cataloguing the papers according to ISAD(G): General International Standard for Archival Description, 2nd edition (1999),1 in order to achieve both intellectual and physical control over the papers and to facilitate public access.

The aim of a good archival catalogue is to create a ‘representation’ of an archival collection, allowing researchers to browse the content of a collection or to search for subjects, themes, people, and places of interest.

As well as facilitating access to the information contained in the records, archival description should also convey the relationships between individual records  within a collection – that broader context is crucial to a proper understanding of archival records and underpins their evidential value.2

In addition, a good archival catalogue also plays an important role in the long-term preservation of archival records: by allowing researchers to identify and locate items of interest before the originals are consulted, unnecessary handling of these unique records can be reduced.

Two important principles underpinning archival cataloguing are provenance and original order. The principle of provenance states that the archives of one particular body must be kept together as a whole, and not mixed with the records of any other body. That ‘body’ might be a government department, an organisation such as a school, church, charity, or private company, or a family or individual person. The records generated and kept by that ‘body’ are unique to them and are treated as such. So, the Chief Secretary’s Office registered papers are maintained together, just as they were originally created, accumulated and used. This is essential to maintaining the evidential integrity of records and in ensuring their usefulness to future researchers.


The second archival principle of original order states that records in any archival collection should – as far as is possible – be kept in the order established by their creators.
Sometimes, where collections of records are in a state of some disarray, detective work may be necessary to identify a sense of the original order of the papers, and occasionally where no trace remains, the archivist may have to make arbitrary decisions on arrangement.  In the case of the Registered Papers, however, we are fortunate that, by virtue of the registering process carried out by the nineteenth century clerks, the records remain largely as they were accumulated, maintained and used by the Chief Secretary’s Office. Therefore, the overall, original arrangement of the registered papers by year has been retained.

Retaining that arrangement by year has also brought practical benefits in the processing of the papers, by permitting the division of work between the project archivists on a year by year basis.

Within each year, the overall original order imposed by the Chief Secretary’s Office has also largely been maintained or reconstructed using the system of original numbers assigned by the Chief Secretary’s Office. This original arrangement tended to be chronological, or alphabetical by correspondent or subject, or frequently a combination of the two. Therefore, it is possible to see how the records were kept and used by the Chief Secretary’s Office in the nineteenth century.

During cataloguing of the papers, it became apparent that occasional errors had been made in the original registering of items by the CSO clerks – for example, two completely unrelated items registered together under one number. These appear to have been a case of human error, whereby one letter tucked inside another as simply overlooked by the clerks. Where this has been discovered, the two items have been separated out and assigned two new, separate reference codes: however, a note of the change has been recorded in the field containing the original reference code.

The papers – formerly in a state of some disarray and piled loosely into each box – have been physically re-ordered into acid-free archival folders and archival text, and housed within archival boxes, thus helping to facilitate their long-term preservation and access.  Rusty metal pins and fastenings, originally used by the personnel of the Chief Secretary’s Office in the nineteenth century, to secure items together, have also been removed by the archivists, and replaced with inert, plastic archival clips.


Item-level processing is carried out, providing detailed descriptions of the material.  Information is entered into a cataloguing database containing fields for reference code, title, scope and content, extent, and date. The original reference number assigned by the Chief Secretary’s Office has also been noted for each item.  Included in the ‘scope and content’ field of each archival description is information on the type of document; its author(s) and any office(s) they held; their address; equivalent details for the addressee(s); as well as a synopsis of the document’s content.

The descriptions also record information on enclosures accompanying the incoming correspondence, as well as draft replies, notes, and annotations, generated by the Chief Secretary’s Office in response to a particular item.

Following exactly the original structure and order of the registered papers, descriptive entries are comprised of a mixture of single items, compound items, and files.  So a single reference code can range from a single item; one item with accompanying enclosures or related items; or a file containing several dozen items.

To see how access to the registered papers has been enhanced by the new archival descriptions, it is interesting to compare the ‘description’ recorded in the original volumes by the CSO clerks of the early nineteenth century, with those equivalent, new ‘archival descriptions’ created by the project archivists. It conveys just how many valuable records have remained effectively hidden from researchers until now:

for example, a single-lineentry in the 1821 volume, referring to:

‘768. Leslies Messrs Case. Trade Commrs’

is now replaced with the following new, detailed catalogue description:

NAI Reference Code: CSO/RP/1823/743

Title: File of papers relating to collapse of banking house of Messrs Leslie, Cork

Scope and Content:

File of papers relating to the collapse of the banking house of Messrs Leslie in Cork city in 1820, and their request for financial aid from the government and from the commissioners for assistance of trade and manufactures, to re-establish their bank, and thereby facilitate trade in Cork city. Includes letters from Richard Hely-Hutchinson, 1st earl of Donoughmore, on behalf of Messrs Leslie; legal opinions of William Saurin, Attorney General of Ireland, and of John Sealy Townsend, King's Counsel and legal advisor to Chief Secretary's Office, Dublin Castle, on the case; and letters from John Galloway, secretary to the commissioners for assistance of trade and manufactures, on the subject. Also includes letter from Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd earl of Liverpool, Prime Minister of Great Britain and Ireland, to William Gregory, Under Secretary, Dublin Castle, enclosing letter from Donoughmore, to Liverpool, on behalf of Messrs Leslie, expressing concern at the 'the most unpromising state of Credit in the City and County of Cork'. Also expressing his belief that 'the commissioners have done every thing in their power to interrupt the liberal policy of the Government, and to prevent the re-establishment of the Banking House of the Messrs Leslies again in Cork', 6 September 1821. Also encloses detailed statement of the circumstances surrounding the bank's collapse, and subsequent requests for government aid, [September 1821]. Also includes copy of letter from Liverpool, Fife House, Whitehall, London, to Donoughmore, explaining the details of the legal position of both the government and the commissioners, concerning a possible advance of money to Messrs Leslie, 17 September 1821.

Extent: 18 items; 70pp
Dates: 21 May 1821-27 Dec 1821
Original Reference Number: CSORP1821/772



New, unique, and consistent reference codes have been assigned to replace each former ‘registered number’.

As already noted, individual archival records – such as a letter, petition, or map – derive much of their meaning from the broader context of their creation; they are not stand-alone items, but gain meaning and validity from their position within a file, series, or collection.
contextof each item, by demonstrating its position within the wider collection (the papers of the Chief Secretary’s Office: CSO), within the series (the registered papers: CSO/RP), and within the sub-series (the particular year of registered papers: CSO/RP/1819). The new reference codes also offer clarity and consistency for the researcher.  A forward slash (/) is used to indicate a change of level description. 

For example,


For the 1821 ‘State of the Country’ papers, the reference codes contain an additional element, in order to distinguish them from the main run of registered papers.

For example,


In cases of multiple items registered under a single reference code, sub-numbering has been used on each individual item or loose page.
However, when requesting items from the registered papers in the National Archives reading room, only the main reference code, as stated in the catalogue, should be cited.  Reference codes should be cited as they appear in the online catalogue.