Functional vs structural (or organisational) arrangement

So, version 1.0 of my structure is now thoroughly tested and ready to go. I worked on it in a visual mind-map format, but have now distilled it into a simplified and accessible two-level text based catalogue structure. The final thing I need to do before showing it here is to provide some context by discussing why and how I’m following a “functional” approach, rather than a “structural/organisational” one.

Traditional archive cataloguing was developed to deal with the records of complex bureaucratic organisations such as national governments. A typical structural or organisational archive catalogue takes the arrangement of the departments as the basis for the structure, and forms a mirror image into which documents can be placed. So, in a local government context you might have a sub-fonds (section of a collection) called “ City Solicitor”, “City Engineer” or “Parks department”.

One benefit of this system is that records can be transferred directly from the originating department into that department’s place in the catalogue. This is good for preserving provenance and original order. It is also easy for someone to find a record if (and this can be a big if!) they are familiar with the organisation.

Laying lines for electric tram outside Micklegate
The department responsible for electrifying the tram lines in 1910 was the “City Engineer’s Dept”. It doesn’t exist anymore, is that a problem from a researcher’s point of view?

So why not just stick to this approach? Well, there are times when this might not work – such as when cataloguing the records of a group that does not have a defined hierarchical structure. However, in this instance, the major one is change over time.

Large complex bureaucratic organisations like councils or large businesses do not keep the same structures over time, they shift and change and reorganise themselves. To deal with this, you might split up the records into the different iterations of the department so it’s clear which records come from which phase.

The problem is that whilst strategic structural reorganisation may take place every decade, the underlying functions being carried out don’t really change very often! The records of street lighting, council housing or parks management may now “belong” to different departments or directorates, but someone is still creating the same records as before; logging incidents, arranging tenancies or procuring plants! Functional arrangement is simply basing your structure on the functions people are carrying out, rather than the labels attached to the department so we have “Legal” “Finance” and “Outdoor spaces” instead. This allows you to keep series of records created by a function intact, instead of artificially splitting them up to fit.

Drainage work on Church Street York in 1924
This drainage work was carried out in 1924 – should the records be catalogued under the department name or would the function “street improvements” be more helpful?

I’ll still capture and provide information about departments and reorganisations, but will bolt it on as an extra using something separate called authority files, instead of using it as the basis for arrangement.

It’s only a subtle difference really, but it means that you don’t have to rearrange your catalogue every time there is a reorganisation. This is vital for this project as some of the council’s functions spread back over centuries and it makes sense for a researcher to find records on council meetings in the 1500s somewhere near those from the 1900s, or records on maternity services grouped together despite the different providers of those services over time.

A final note – this is not quite the same as subject-based arrangement. I’m not grouping records based on topic or theme, there is still a discernible function being carried out. Neither am I breaking up records to suit my scheme, I’m just sorting the existing units I have (usually the “series”) into a sensible structure to aid navigation. The fact that vast swathes of the civic archive are in disarray and have little original order, instead of coming to us directly from the department “intact”, is one of the reasons why this approach makes the most sense.

5 thoughts on “Functional vs structural (or organisational) arrangement

  1. Kelda – I look forward to sharing it! My research found that most civic archives use a departmental structure, so my functional subfonds titles like “Health” “Public Order and Justice” and “Civil and Military Defence” are a departure from the norm and should allow much more flexibility, especially with post 1974 records which are often not integrated into civic collections.

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