Handout on Archival Arrangement and Description
For ARC 499 Archives Practicum
Danette Cook Adamson
Special Collections Librarian
Cal Poly Pomona University Library
Archival repositories seek to preserve materials of enduring historical value that are
produced by organizations and individuals. A “finding aid” is needed to describe each
individual collection in order to help researchers understand the content of the collection.
Depending on the repository, an archival finding aid can also be referred to as an
“inventory”, a “register”, or a “guide”.
Approach to Archival Organization:
Archives and manuscript collections are arranged according to two fundamental
principles: provenance and original order. Provenance is the fundamental principle of
archival organization. It provides that records are kept together and maintained based on
their creator or source rather that according to a subject or other form of classification
system. Materials from different creators are not intermingled, even when they share a
The second principle, sometimes referred to as the “sanctity” of original order, means
that the internal arrangement of files established by their creator should be preserved and
retained whenever feasible. This acts to preserve the original relationship and meaning of
the documents to each other. If the original order has been lost, the materials should be
arranged or grouped in a meaningful relation to one another.
Materials should be properly boxed, labeled, and stored so that they are easily maintained
and readily retrieved.
A “finding aid” with essential information about a collection should be created to give
researchers and archives staff a good idea about what is in each collection and where the
materials are located within the collection. Finding aids should give priority to record
group (collection level) and series level description before more detailed levels of
description are employed. The level of description of materials depends on their research
value, the anticipated level of demand, and their physical condition.
General Advice and Principles:
- Do not mix materials – keep materials from the same creator together
- Leave in original order if there is one
- Do no harm – keep a record of any changes; make sure they are reversible
- Get other opinions
- Physically organize, label, box and store materials so they can be retrieved
- Create a “finding aid” for each collection, normally describing the collection
down to the series level, adding more detail when appropriate and feasible.
Accessioning involves transferring records into the custody of an archival repository.
Legal title to the donated records is conveyed by a deed of gift and also details conditions
of the acquisition such as any access restrictions or what to do with unwanted materials.
Note: Before accepting any gift, you must establish that the donor has the right to give
the material. (i.e. there may be other heirs). You can consult with your legal department
and perhaps take the material on deposit while checking on the legal rights. There can
also be differences depending on the laws of the state in which the gift is made.
Sometimes, upon the death of a person, for tax reasons, the heir/spouse needs to
immediately get rid of the collection (or be forced to pay inheritance tax). In such a case,
a repository can take the collection on deposit, but make sure the agreement has an
ending date where it will become a gift.
After physically taking control of the materials, the collection is immediately assigned an
accession number (often comprised of the year plus a sequential number; i.e. 2007–20.
An accession record is created that includes information about the collection, its
condition, the donor, and any restrictions.
4 Stages to Arranging and Describing Archival Collections:
1. Analysis – Do a preliminary inventory of the collection. Get a general overview
of the collection by looking in each box. Are they numbered? Get the boxes in
order. Survey the types of materials in the collection. Is there any discernible
arrangement? Look at the physical condition. Is there evidence of bugs or mold?
Are they dirty, water-damaged or do they have a strange smell?
2. Selection – Set aside, weed out and dispose of unimportant, duplicative, irrelevant,
miscellaneous things. Criteria will need to be agreed upon by the archival staff
and the donor of the collection. Each collection can be different. The deed of gift
may specify exactly what is to be done with materials that the repository does not
3. Organization – In general, do not mix materials of one record group with another
collection. Where did the material come from? Who were the owners (not
necessarily the writer). Do not mix records that do not have the same provenance.
In some situations, however, you can choose to make a series at the end of the
finding aid called “Additional Donations” indicating additional materials added
to the collection that come from other sources. This is a way to clarify and
maintain their separate provenance while avoiding the need for a separate finding
Determine what categories or series you will use. Series are generally arranged
either by form (i.e. correspondence or photographs) or distinct activities (such as
politics, travel, etc.) [Consult the handout “Standard Series and Subseries with
Elements of Each Series (used in finding aids):
Try to have each of your series include the following elements:
Title/Name of series
Date/s of coverage
Size/extent of material
Arrangement – such as arranged alphabetically by project or
chronologically or by contract number, etc.
4. Description – Should aid a researcher regarding what materials to request. It
should also aid the security and preservation of the material, since when the
description is adequate, the material will not need to be unnecessarily pulled and
It also can be helpful to create an index to the collection. However, you can choose
not to organize further than the series level and to leave, for example:
Correspondence – “A” (unarranged). [But, if you choose to microfilm the collection,
then you should organize even better since it is quite hard to use microfilm collections
if they are not thoroughly organized.]
It may be practical to initially aim at describing a manuscript collection down to the
series level, rather than uniformly attempting to describe further down to the folder
level. Try to create a useful series description that can act as a miniature scope and
contents note that can help guide the researcher to relevant materials. Aim at going
beyond just a list of record types included in the series.
Approach to Organizing Institutional or Office records:
For institutional records, create an agency history, including a description of the
organization and function of the creating agency.
See if there is a filing manual. Get an organizational chart to understand the relation of
files to each other. If there is no chart, create one. You need to figure out the flow of
information in the organization. Be sure to use the structure in effect at the time the
records were created. If no structure exists, be logical and rational. Arrange by structure
and functions for the organization. Create a reasonable order that you will use to make a
finding aid that can be understood by others. Institutional records are normally described
only down to the series level in archival finding aids. The approach is by function.
With archival materials from informal organizations, such as social groups and political
groups, the archivist may need to create an order, perhaps grouping things by functions.
Preservation issues can override original order. You may need to separate out the
different formats to care for them properly. Just make sure to leave a paper trail on what
was the original order and what was done to change it. A note indicating the transfer of
material to another area can be left in the original folder.
Approach to Organizing Personal Papers:
The first thing to be done in organizing personal papers is to do a biographical study on
the person. This can be a chronological event list or a narrative. Also, describe the
materials at hand rather than focusing or the entire life of the person, if aspects of the
person’s life are not reflected in the collection. When writing the biographical section,
include at the end a list of citations to the sources you consulted. There is no “original
order” in manuscripts (personal papers) since they are not flowing from a bureaucracy or
institution. In general, for an individual person, you can create an activity chart. Straight
chronological order is not the most useful to researchers except for a biographer. Personal
papers/manuscripts are usually described down past series to folder level.
It is recommended to keep photographic negatives in chronological order when dealing
with personal papers. Then the actual photographs can be filed elsewhere and under a
Approach to Organizing Family Papers:
Family papers can be very interesting and can contain anything. You will need to set up
a genealogical chart to track the different generations. Then create an activity chart for
Typical Physical Processing:
There are a number of common procedures important in the physical processing of a
1) Consider removing staples and metal paper clips since they rust.
2) Unfold and place materials in acid-free folders. Carefully flatten folded or
rolled items . Consult a staff member if the materials require humidifying or other
conservation measures. [see handout “Flattening materials at the Alexander
3) Place acidic paper items between sheets of acid-free paper to protect the
surrounding materials and/or photocopy the item onto acid-free paper. Consult a
staff member for further assistance when faced with preservation issues.
4) Retain envelopes containing correspondence if they include extensive
information not included in the letter or are unique in some way. Copy the
information from the postmark using a pencil if the actual correspondence is not
5) Photocopy news clippings onto acid-free paper.
6) Use clear labeling. Generally, do not shift series in the middle of a storage box.
Use “spacers” to support the folders, then start a new box.
7) Based on the gift agreement, there may be usage restrictions. You can put a red
dot on a box to indicate there is a restriction of some type on the material inside,
such as confidential material restricted for a particular time period, or an item of
great value like a Nobel prize medal.
Typical Parts to a Finding Aid:
Donor / Provenance note – can include who owned the collection, when it was
received, copyright; can give information on successive transfers of ownership
and custody of a collection or item.
Biography or Institutional History
Scope and Contents:
Specific types and forms of materials present
The dates of the bulk of the material
The functions or activities resulting in the creation of the records
The most significant topics, events, persons, places, etc.
Access restrictions on any series
The type of information listed above for Scope and Contents can
be used for describing the entire collection as well as describing
an individual series.
Box and Folder List
1 filing cabinet drawer = 2 linear feet of files
1 records storage box = 1.25 linear feet
1 document storage box (letter or legal size) = 0.4 linear feet
half-width document storage box (letter or legal size) = 0.2 linear feet
If smaller than 1 linear foot, add a qualifier to explain what is in the box [i.e. 0.1
linear ft (2 small scrapbooks); 0.1 linear ft (16 leaves)]
Formula for materials not in boxes: [number of inches] x 0.083 and round to the
1 flat file drawer = 4.23 linear feet per drawer (51 in. wide drawers x .083)
1 cubic foot = 2.75 linear feet