Stewardship Note

Arranging and Describing Archival Collections

  • The focus of this piece is physical archival records (rather than digital items).
  • What’s the difference between libraries, archives, and museums?

The mission of archivists is to identify records of enduring value, organize them, preserve them, and finally make them accessible to researchers. These records are quite different from the objects Julia Gary wrote about in her Stewardship Note about accessioning and cataloging objects.

Archival collections are generally composed of many items from only paper to a combination of paper, photographic prints, negatives, glass plates, ledger books, audio-visual materials, and ephemera. 

Order In The . . . Archive!

Archivists begin by organizing records while maintaining original order or provenance. We assess new acquisitions to understand if there is a discernible order. If we can determine the original order, we keep that organizational structure to honor the vision of the collection’s creator. If we cannot determine the original order, we must create our own. 

Both practices of maintaining original order or creating our own are guided by levels in a hierarchy. These levels are: a.) repository, b.) record group and sub-group, c.) series and sub-series, d.) file, and f.) item. For example, at College of the Atlantic our College Governance Collection is composed of governance policies, proposals, guidelines, and committee minutes. The levels are:

  • Repository = College of the Atlantic Archives and Special Collections
  • Record group = College Governance Collection
  • Series = Series 1 Policies, Series 2 Proposals, Series 3 Guidelines, Series 4 Committees, sub-series Charters, Bylaws, Minutes, Memos, Correspondence
  • File = Folder containing numerous documents
  • Item = Single document.

Preservation

Once an order for the records has been determined, I focus on the physical preservation of materials. Best practices are to remove any metal fasteners (paper clips and staples), place documents in acid-free folders, which are labeled using pencil, and then placed in acid-free boxes.

Hannah Stevens with COA archival records, organized and safely stored in acid-free medium. (Photo by Jane Hultberg)

Finding Aid

Now that an order has been determined and the collection is re-housed in proper archival storage, the collection must be described using a finding aid. Finding aids are essentially inventories of collections and archivists rely on these to provide researchers an access point to a collection. Finding aids vary from institution to institution, but the basics are to provide the context and composition of a collection.

There are collection management programs for archives institutions can purchase that will, among many other things, create finding aids. These systems are great if you have a healthy budget. But you can create your own finding aids using templates or examples from other institutions. At COA, I have developed my own system of finding aids that are Google Docs hosted in Google Drive, and are accessible to the public. 

Need Help?

The process of arranging and describing collections takes time, patience, and practice. In all my training and experience, I still find myself reaching for resources to help guide me through the steps explained above. I recommend the book Developing and Maintaining Practical Archives by Gregory S Hunter which is available on MaineCat ⇗ (check with your local Maine library) or for purchase through the ALA Store ⇗. Lastly, the Society of American Archivists website ⇗ is an incredible resource!


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