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Processing and Description: Processing

Guide for UB Special Collections covering accessions, processing, description, and care of collection material.
Last Updated: Jun 5, 2023 11:19 AM

Front-line Processing (at Accession)


Processing is the arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons.  Processing includes researching the collection and its creator, organizing and arranging the collection, and describing the collection by creating a finding aid.

“Quality” processing does not necessarily mean extensive arrangement and description (pp. 17 Greene and Meisner). There are many degrees of processing, each of which can be done well.

“Good processing 1) expedites getting collection materials into the hands of users; 2) assures arrangement of materials adequate to user needs; 3) takes the minimal steps necessary to physically preserve collection materials; and 4) describes materials sufficient[ly] to promote use.” (MPLP p. 212-213.)

An archivist determines the level of processing depending on a number of factors: time/cost priorities; amount of material; subject matter (research potential); donor specifications; confidential records, etc.

There are two main principles in processing archival and manuscript collections: provenance and original order.

Provenance refers to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance, or the respect des fonds, dictates that records of different origins (provenance) are to be kept separate to preserve their context, even if they share similar subject content.

Original order is the organization, pattern of arrangement, or sequence of records established by the creator of the records.Maintaining records in original order serves two purposes. First, it preserves existing relationships and evidential significance that can be inferred from the context of the records. Second, it exploits the record creator's mechanisms to access the records, saving the archives the work of creating new access tools.

Archivists maintain original order if so doing preserves evidence of the creator’s use and arrangement of a collection. Original order is not the same as the order in which materials were received. Items that were clearly misfiled may be re-filed in their proper location. Also, a collection may not have meaningful order if the creator stored items in a haphazard fashion. In such instances, archivists often impose order on the materials to facilitate arrangement and description. The principle of respect for original order does not extend to respect for original chaos.

Above all, the method of processing should be made transparent to users through documentation in notes and other description. Arrangement and description orient users to the context of the records. Revealing our methods within description can offer users a better understanding of how the collection in front of them came to be, how it came to be here, and how it came to look as it does. Contemporary scholars are more interested now in the ways by which the archival record was produced, and the notes fields can tell a user a lot about the material in front of them, particularly those processed at the collection level.


Description Overview

Archival materials are generally described collectively rather than individually. The informational value of a single document is enhanced by the contextual value of those surrounding it. Collective description provides a summary of important groupings (series) of materials for researchers. Series descriptions and other information recorded in finding aids facilitate researchers’ access to archival materials. To more efficiently process collections, the processor should use any description provided by a donor (such as dates or photograph identification) or captured in the accession record or previous processing; minimal description may be enhanced later based on researcher use.

A finding aid is a written description of archival materials and generally consists of two parts: front matter and container list.

Front matter outlines the nature of a collection. Essential parts of the front matter include: location of collection, collection number and name, name of creator(s), date range, size (extent), abstract, acquisition information, biographical/historical information, scope and content notes, arrangement, access and use restrictions, and subjects.  Most front matter is created after the arrangement and description of a collection.

The container list is a detailed inventory of a collection. A collection may be described at the collection level, series, subseries, folder level, and rarely, at the item level (avoid sub-sub series). Your processing plan will determine the level of description to be used. Descriptions in a container list should be clear and concise.  Folder level description typically consists of the box and folder number, a title/brief description of the folder’s contents, and a date.

I. Research & Survey

Before physically arranging materials, study any existing collection information, including accession files and records, donation files, MARC record, previous finding aid, or container list (inventory). Conduct initial research on the creator of the collection.  Take notes and record sources; this will help in writing a biographical/historical note and a scope and content note.

Locate the collection: Make sure to find all current locations for collection materials, including map drawers, file cabinets, etc. Gather all material in one work space.

Survey the collection, using any existing inventories. Take notes of box contents, including deviations from the inventory. Make note of original order, format types (audio, posters, photographs, etc.) and any preservation needs. It's important to understand the entirety of the collection before beginning to arrange material. Surveying can reveal context and an original order that may not be immediately apparent.

II. Processing Plan

Establish and document a processing plan, including the following:

  • overall organization, series and subseries
  • any items that do not belong with the collection
  • items that will need restrictions (See Collection policies)

Discuss the processing plan, timeline for completion, and collection organization with your supervisor.  Remember, the processing level should be based on expected research interest in the collection.  If warranted by patron use, descriptions can always be revised or enhanced at a later date.

Basic Processing Levels:

Collection level (brief record): Most often used for small or homogenous collections.  Includes a MARC record in the library catalog and a basic record in ArchivesSpace.  Occasionally, a more thorough container list may be added to a collection with a brief record at a later date.

Folder level: Files and folders are arranged in series and/or subseries.  Includes a MARC record, finding aid record in ArchivesSpace with series, box and folder descriptions, and date ranges.

Item level: Most often used for collections of particular importance or value, individual items, or artwork.

*Note: The entirety of a collection does not need to be processed and described at the same level.  One series may have a box listing, while another may be described at the folder level, etc.

From Guidelines for Efficient Archival Processing in the University of California Libraries

"A collection is 'processed' whenever it can be productively used for research."

(Helen Slotkin and Karen Lynch, "An Analysis of Processing Procedures: The Adaptable Approach," American Archivist (Spring 1982):

The key to efficient processing is to find the most appropriate level of detail for appraising, preserving, arranging, and describing a collection, appropriate to its research value and condition. Processors must find the "golden minimum"; of effort required to make a collection, or series within a collection, usable. In order to be usable, a collection or series must be discoverable, materials with significant research value must be findable, and typical use should not create undue risk of harm. As a general rule, every archival collection should have a collection-level description available online for users to discover. This should be a repository's first priority. Small collections and those with low research value may never receive more than collection-level treatment.

Level of Effort Level of Control Description Arrangement Preservation Appraisal
Minimal Collection level Collection level record in MARC or EAD (at least DACs single level minimum) possibly with a brief box listing As is Rebox if unserviceable in current housing Weeding not appropriate at this level.  For collections with privacy concerns throughout, restrict entire collection from users and review for use on demand
Low Series or Subseries Brief finding aid or detailed MARC notes (arrangement/scope and content) with series/subseries descriptions and/or box listings Put series and/or boxes into rough order Replace damaged boxes.  House loose items.  Replace housing only if unserviceable Appraise series, subseries, or large, discernible chunks, but avoid finer levels of weeding.  For series with privacy concerns throughout, restrict entire series from users and review for use on demand
Moderate File level (expedited) Succinct finding aid with abbreviated folder lists or simple inventories.  Existing description repurposed. Put folders in rough order.  Preserve original order when usable.  Perform rough sort of loose items Replace boxes.  Retain existing folders and labels when in good shape Appraise at the folder level; avoid finer levels of weeding.  Segregate folders with privacy concerns
Intensive Folder level (traditional) Finding aid includes detailed folder lists, scope and content notes, and/or historical notes.  Folder titles are refined and standardized. Put folders in order.  Impose new organizational scheme or make significant improvements.  Sort loose items into folders. Replace boxes and folders.  Selectively perform preservation actions for fragile or valuable items Appraise at the folder level; avoid finer levels of weeding.  Segregate folders with privacy concerns
Highly intensive Item level Detailed finding aid includes item lists, or folder lists with explanatory notes. Items are placed in order in boxes and folders Replace boxes and folders.  Comprehensively address housing or preservation needs for fragile items.  Reformat a/v materials. Item-level weeding appropriate.  Segregate items with privacy concerns

From Extensible Processing for Archives and Special Collections: Reducing Processing Backlogs:

Six principles for an extensible processing program:

  1. Create a baseline level of access to all collections material
  2. Create standardized, structured description
  3. Manage archival materials in the aggregate
  4. "Do no harm": limit physical handling and processing
  5. Iterate: conduct further processing in a systematic but flexible way
  6. Manage processing holistically

III.  Organization and Arrangement

Archival materials are seldom received in perfect order with lengthy documentation of origins, structure, topics, and historical significance. If you are processing a collection that does not appear to have an organizational structure, you must establish intellectual control over the collection through organization and arrangement.

Organization is the process of dividing the collection into distinct units, such as series and subseries. This allows the researcher to make sense of the collection at a glance and decide how to approach using the material. Following the principle of original order, attempt to retain as much of the original organization structure as possible. Re‐organization occurs only when access is difficult or if the materials are determined to be unusable due to their current organizational scheme (or lack thereof). Collections are most frequently divided into series based on their subject, format, or function.  Some series warrant further breakdown.  Large groupings within series can be made into subseries.

Arrangement refers to the filing pattern, such as chronological or alphabetical order, that the materials follow.  Consult with your supervisor before beginning physical organization. Your decision should be recorded in your Processing Plan.

Begin to fill out the Student Processing Checklist.

After identifying the arrangement (possibly series and subseries), physically rearrange collection to reflect the organization (without refoldering if possible). As you arrange, you may also…

  • Conduct basic preservation work such as stabilizing fragile material and placing photographs in Mylar sleeves.
  • Remove duplicates and identify restricted material [health or financial info, etc.]
  • Refolder if necessary, putting papers in chronological or alphabetical order if applicable.
  • Title and date each folder in pencil. (DO NOT title folders with a date or year range. The date can be an element of file or series level description but should not be used as a folder title.) Keep folders in record boxes.
  • Enter in folder descriptions into the finding aid.

As you arrange, it is helpful to begin with the simplest series/subseries and work out to more complex series. Also consider that reviewing correspondence may help provide context for other material. 

Once all materials have been arranged, assign box and folder numbers and enter into finding aid. Create labels for boxes, reshelve collection, and make sure the shelving location is reflected in the finding aid. For University Archives, print out the finding aid and file in the binder in the reading room.

Processing Checklist

  1. Search the backlog files, accession files, and Y:\ArchDev\FA or MS folders for existing inventories and other documentation regarding the collection.
  2. If no ArchivesSpace accession record exists, and there's information to create one, do so.  To search for accession info:
    1. Check for a backlog or accession file.
    2. If an accession number is known, search the catalog.
    3. Collection 19-001, University Archives Guest Book and Registers contains legacy accessions listed by date.  The first 2 digits of an accession number signify the year.
    4. Check the Collection and Finding Aids Inventory xls
  3. Create (or spawn from accession) an ArchivesSpace resource record (finding aid).
  4. Add (or update) the collection in the Collections Database if applicable.
  5. Update the Collection and Finding Aids Inventory xls (both accession and processed listing).  Add the AS finding aid link.
  6. Print finding aid and add to reading room binders.
  7. Compile or update the accession file (include items from any existing backlog file).
  8. Label boxes, assign barcodes to top containers, and shelve the collection.
  9. Update the location in ArchivesSpace and the Collection and Finding Aids xls.