M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives
M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives About these images M.E. Grenander Department of Special Collections and Archives

Accessioning and Processing Manual

Developed by
Jared Parker and Geoffrey Williams, Fall 1996
Revisions
2001, 2002, 2005, 2008


TABLE OF CONTENTS


Introduction
Part 1: Provenance and Accessioning
Part 2: Processing
Part 3: Composing the Finding Aid and Cataloging Record
Appendix A: Glossary of Common Archival Terms
Appendix B: Sample Forms and Work Sheets
Appendix C: Sample Finding Aids
Appendix D: Sample Encoding for Finding Aids
Appendix E: Sample Bibliographic Records

Accessioning and Processing Manual
Introduction

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Processing manuscript collections involves a number of procedures and decisions that require careful thought and consideration. Some of the more important areas for consideration include the provenance or original order of the collection, a preliminary screening or inventory, and the actual processing procedures. The following guidelines and suggestions are not steadfast rules. The exceptions to these rules are what make the processing of manuscript and archival collections more than a simple clerical task.

Once a donor has agreed to deposit their records and an appraisal has been made, the following steps should be completed to insure the legal transfer of collections and guarantee that proper processing guidelines are followed so that collections are properly arranged and available in a timely manner.

General Steps in Processing Personal Papers or Organizational Records

1. Record each acquisition in the collection management system or using an accession record sheet. This form should provide all administrative and legal information regarding newly acquired collections. The accession record sheets should be entered into the collections database on a regular basis. (See Appendix B for citations to all sample forms and work sheets discussed.)

2. Develop a preliminary biographical sketch or administrative history of the creator of the collection. Identify the focus of work either by subject or chronology and include key individuals who influenced their work. Identify family or organization members when possible. Cite sources of biographical information from texts like biography and genealogy master indices. This is only a brief preliminary sketch, as you will likely discover additional information when processing the collection.

3. Conduct a preliminary inventory by reviewing the collection. Identify the order and organization of materials filed in the existing boxes. Do not rearrange the collection at this time. Identify the general types of materials in the collection. Are they primarily about the individual or organization's work? Are the materials retrievable in their present order? If so, identify the basic order.

4. Discuss the collection's arrangement or lack of order with the appropriate supervisor. Reorganize the collection as needed. If there is no discernible order to the collection, organize the materials to the folder level according to series categories and continue to discuss with the appropriate staff member.

5. Rebox and refolder the collection. Pay particular attention to who the correspondence is with, the subject of correspondence or writing, and additional information that can be added to the finding aid. Remove metal paper clips, staples, and other non-archival quality items. Remove and set aside duplicates. When appropriate, place acid free paper before and after previously joined items to indicate that documents are together.

6. Prepare a preliminary scope and content statement for the collection. Based on knowledge of the individual's or organization's work identify items of research value, what is unique, and what is not available which you might expect to find in the collection.

7. Prepare a written finding aid for the collection describing materials to the folder level within each series. Use your preliminary work sheets to complete the guide. Sample finding aids are available in Appendix C.


Accessioning and Processing Manual
Part 1: Provenance and Accessioning

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The concept of provenance is integral for the processing of archival and manuscript collections. The features of the term are best described through the following three-part definition.

1. The "office of origin" of records, i.e., the office or administrative entity that created, received, and accumulated the records in the conduct of its business. This can also cover the person, family, firm, or other source of personal papers and manuscript collections.

2. Information of successive transfers of ownership and custody of a particular manuscript.

3. In archival theory, the principle that archives of a given records creator must not be intermingled with those of other records creators.

In practice, the principle of provenance directly influences a number of basic processing techniques. One of the more direct effects concerns the sanctity of original order. If the papers being processed follow an obvious filing arrangement such as alphabetical, chronological, or by subject, then under the principle of provenance that arrangement should be maintained. If, as is often the case, there is only a partial or incomplete arrangement, then it is up to the processor to determine the most appropriate arrangement system.

Another aspect of provenance concerns the intermingling of materials. It is not acceptable practice to remove materials from a collection and add them to another collection because they initially appear to relate better. Each collection is an individual entity and adding materials from another collection would tamper with its uniqueness.

The theory of provenance also dictates the determination of the body, institution, or individual that is the original owner and creator of the records. This is particularly true in the processing of archival materials. It is necessary to know who the creator or creators of the records were and what functions or activities they were involved with in order to determine how the records will be arranged. For example, if the creator was a business, how was it originally organized? What were the various departments and offices that together comprised the whole? If the creator was an individual, do the papers reflect the person's various interests such as business papers, personal correspondence, family materials, and other distinct types of records?

Accessioning refers to the process of transferring records to the custody of an archival repository. Once potential donors have made a decision to place materials in a repository, the archivists must complete the legal and physical transfer of the records. Legal title to donated records is conveyed by a deed of gift, also known as a memorandum of agreement. The purpose of the deed of gift is to transfer legal title to the repository, detail conditions regarding the acquisition, how it is to be preserved, and terms of access.

When a collection arrives an accession record should be completed with as much information as possible. A thorough accession record includes as much information about the collection, its condition, and the donor as possible. After physically taking control of materials the collection is immediately assigned an accession number based on the repository's numeric system. The date the materials were received, the name of the collection they will be housed in, and where they are stored should also be noted. Contact information for the donor includes a telephone number, Web site URL, e-mail address, and postal address. If the materials came from an organization, contact information for the individual responsible for transferring ownership such as the president or administrative assistant should be included in addition to the organization's general information. When accepting new accessions the condition of the materials should also be noted. This includes the actual amount of materials received, a brief description of the materials, any restrictions to access, as well as any physical problems such as a moldy smell, water damage, or disappearing print. The information is entered into the collection database as soon as is practical to allow for better management of the Department's collections. Once the deed of gift is signed and the physical transfer of the records has taken place, the actual processing of the collection may begin.


Accessioning and Processing Manual
Part 2: Processing

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Once a collection has been accessioned, the processor should research the history of the individual or organization responsible for depositing the records. The next step for the processor is to complete a preliminary inventory. The preliminary inventory will provide a general overview of the collection by taking note of the types of material in each box and whether there is any discernible arrangement of those materials. The preliminary inventory should not be a comprehensive record of the collection, but rather the product of an initial examination by the processor.

After the completion of the preliminary inventory, the actual processing of the collection begins. A first step is to approximate the series within a collection. Series are generally arranged either by form, such as correspondence, photographs, and publications, or distinct activities, such as politics, environmental conservation, and fraternal organizations. The processor may also implement a combination of the two forms or another system for series descriptions. Discuss your series schemes with a staff member before settling on any system. Once the sketch of the series in a collection is determined, the actual processing may begin.

There are a number of common procedures important in the physical processing of a collection:

1. Unfold and place materials in acid-free folders. Carefully flatten items subjected to excessive or long-term folding. Consult a staff member if the materials require humidifying or other conservation measures.

2. 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 when faced with preservation issues for further assistance.

3. 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 dated.

4. Remove staples and metal paper clips when necessary.

5. Photocopy news clippings that are not part of a series of news publication issues onto acid-free paper.

While processing, an immediate question arising concerns the material's arrangement. If the provenance is clear and there is a visible arrangement scheme, then follow that method. If there is no clear arrangement, the processor should use the system that best fits the series, whether it is alphabetical, chronological, or by subject. It would not be unusual for a collection to have a different arrangement in each of its series. It is important to use the arrangement that best reflects the intent and content of the series. Avoid using an arrangement scheme more elaborate than the material warrants and base arrangement decisions on the size, importance, and projected uses of the materials.

Some general guidelines to remember when arranging a collection include the following:

1. Retain all enclosures included with correspondence and keep incoming, outgoing, and ancillary correspondence together if this was the original arrangement.

2. Place undated material at the end of a chronological series. If an approximate date can be determined, place the material at the end of the folder covering that date.

3. In an alphabetical series, place a folder covering a specific name behind the general alphabetical listing. For example, if folder 1 is Aa-Az, then folder 2 would hold Andrews, Mark.

4. Put inclusive dates on folders when possible, indicate if undated materials are a part of the folder, and use circa dating when it is possible to make such a determination.

Perhaps the most difficult decisions while processing concern the disposal of items of dubious value. Although a collection's main task is to preserve records of value, many valuable collections contain material of questionable worth. The inclusion of such material in a collection can be a waste of space and time for both the processor and future researchers. Throughout the appraisal and organization of a collection, the processor must determine whether records have primary, secondary, administrative, fiscal, legal, historical, evidential, informational, research, or intrinsic value. Consult one of the glossaries of archival terms in Appendix A for further information about each of these values.

The following guidelines are offered as a way to standardize and rationalize disposal techniques. These are not unbreakable rules, but should be considered flexible guidelines for disposable materials. Always remember to discuss any questions you may have with the appropriate staff member.

1. Remove more than two duplicates of most materials from the collection. Frequent exceptions to this are publications, photographs, and audiovisual materials.

2. Canceled checks, receipts, bills, bank statements, and insurance policies are often prime candidates for disposal.

3. Common and multiple blank forms are generally weeded from a collection.


Accessioning and Processing Manual
Part 3: Composing the Finding Aid and Cataloging Record

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The finding aid is the processor's link with the researcher and the Department's staff. It describes the content of the collection and its arrangement to the researcher. The finding aid produced by the processor establishes physical and intellectual control over records or archival materials. The basic components include the title and introductory page, table of contents, administrative history or biographical sketch, scope and content note, series description, and box and folder list. A finding aid template is available for processors in the Department and examples are available in Appendix C. Citations to work sheets for the biographical sketch, administrative history, scope and content note, and series description are available in Appendix B.

The title page should include the full name of the collection and its inclusive dates (and bulk daates if relevant) followed by the author of the finding aid's name and date of completion. If more than one person worked on the finding aid or if the current version is a revision of an earlier finding aid or inventory include that information as well. The title page also includes basic departmental information, which can be found on the template. The introductory page includes the size of the collection in cubic feet, how and when the collection was acquired, any access restrictions to the collection, and a copyright statement. The table of contents should list each section of the finding aid and include series and sub-series titles.

The first narrative section of the finding aid is the biographical sketch of the individual or family or the administrative history of an organization or institution. The purpose of this section is to provide the researcher with significant mileposts in the individual or organization's history. Include name changes, noteworthy accomplishments, and particular areas of interest in this section of the finding aid. For individuals and families be sure to incorporate family relationships as well as information about ancestors and descendants. Descriptions of organizations or institutions benefit from details about the mission of the group, administrative units, members, and relationships with similar or related organizations.

The scope and content note follows the biographical sketch or administrative history. It is an overview of the strengths and weaknesses of the collection. It should not be a compilation of the series description. The scope and contents note includes a description of the types of records in the collection as well as references to any particularly noteworthy items in the collection such as correspondence from prominent individuals. Also, be sure to relate the collection's contents to other related holdings in the Department of Special Collections and Archives. Identify any other institutions holding collections of the same individual or organization.

The last narrative component of the finding aid is the series description. This section discusses each series and subseries in the collection. It includes the series title and inclusive dates, arrangement, the types of records found in the series, and prominent topics in the collection. The series description should explain the arrangement of each series, so that researchers are able to understand how records were arranged and why.

The final section of most finding aids is the box and folder list. The collection should be arranged by series and subseries with a folder-by-folder title list including dates. Finding aids are made available to the public in paper form in the research room and electronically through the Department's Web site. An HTML template is available that allows the user to simply insert text from a finding aid into the properly encoded document. Examples of finding aids marked up in HTML are available in Appendix D. Remember that each collection has its own unique character and requirements, so do consult the appropriate staff member with your questions.

Every processed collection in the Department also has a bibliographic record loaded in the Library's online catalog and WorldCat, OCLC's catalog of books, archival collections, Web resources, and other material worldwide. The bibliographic record is produced using information taken from the finding aid and then inserted into a template created specifically for the Department's cataloging needs. All bibliographic records include basic elements such as the author or creator of the collection, title, type of materials in the collection, subject headings based on the Library of Congress classification system, as well as summaries of the biographical sketch or administrative history, scope and content note, and series descriptions. Each element has a designated field in the record. The record should include as many subject headings as the collection necessitates based on its size and scope. Relevant terms can be found in the Library of Congress subject headings reference texts, but it is also useful to search the Library's online catalog for items with related subjects and use those subject headings. Any individuals or organizations that created materials in the collection who were not listed as the author should also be included in the appropriate field. See Appendix E for samples of completed bibliographic records produced to describe collections. Additional information about cataloging manuscripts is also available in the Department through a manual produced to meet the Department's manuscript cataloging needs.


Accessioning and Processing Manual
Appendix A: Glossary of Common Archival Terms

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Online Glossaries of Archival Terms

Bibliography of Glossaries


Accessioning and Processing Manual
Appendix B: Sample Forms and Work Sheets

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The forms and work sheets used by the Department are based on examples found in the publications listed below as well as those shared by other repositories.


Ginn, Mary Lea, ed. Sample Forms for Archival and Records Management Programs. Lenexa, Kansas and Chicago: ARMA International and Society of American Archivists, 2002.
Inventories and Registers: A Handbook of Examples. Chicago: The Society of American Archivists, 1976.
Society of American Archivists' Forms Manual Task Force, ed. Archival Forms Manual. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 1982.

Accessioning and Processing Manual
Appendix C: Sample Finding Aids

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New Collections in the Department of Special Collections and Archives

Lists of all Collections in the Department of Special Collections and Archives


Accessioning and Processing Manual
Appendix D: Sample Encoding for Finding Aids

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To see the encoding for one of the Department's finding aids, open the finding aid in an Internet brower such as Netscape, Internet Explorer, or Mozilla Firefox. If viewing using Explorer, select "View" and "Source." If using Netscape or Mozilla Firefox, select "View" and "Page Source." The HTML encoding will open in a new window.


Accessioning and Processing Manual
Appendix E: Sample Bibliographic Records

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To view the bibliographic record for the Harold Abramowitz Papers (or another processed collection) vist the University at Albany Libraries Online Catalog and perform an Author Search such as Harold Abramowitz or New York Republican State Committee. The Staff Display option provides a look at the MARC fields and subfields.


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Last updated July 11, 2005

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