A Guide for Organizing, Cataloging, and Preserving
Collections of Papers, Photographs, and Other Records


advice on archival management to help you set up, maintain, and provide access
to small collections of personal papers, family records, and other holdings

This informal guide is a compilation of information from readily-available sources in online and printed formats. It is an introduction to a complex and difficult subject that is intended to help you organize and preserve collections of papers and other possessions and to make them available for use. As a short introduction by an interested amateur, it does not pretend to be an authoritative reference tool and should not be taken as one.


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Brief Overview

collageYou can use this brief introduction to archival management as a reference guide, an informal tutorial on setting up a small repository, or as an introduction to a phased approach to organizing and conserving a small family or personal collection. Take a moment to scan the topics that are treated in the list of tasks shown directly above.

If your holdings are not extensive, your time limited, and your budget tight, you should probably make a relatively modest first set of steps (as described in the Start Small section) and then decide whether to go further. If you have a relatively large collection on which you have already been working for some time, you might wish to begin somewhere within the tasks that follow the Start Small section.

If you do not decide to start small, and if you have not already done so, you should begin by doing a first draft of an archives policy statement. Next you should gather and analyze information about the collections you hold and then physically organize and arrange the contents of each of them into a useful order. While doing these things you should make sure you have the data you need to create catalog records and other appropriate finding aids for your own administrative control and so that your users can identify and locate relevant materials. You should put items into folders, boxes, and other types of archival housing. You should make use copies, as appropriate, either in hard copy or online, or both, being careful not to violate copyright or the privacy rights of people who have a direct interest in the contents of the collection (as, for example subjects of reports or authors of papers). You should make sure the environment in which the collections are to be stored is as close to ideal as you can manage. And you should take care to document the procedures you have used throughout in a log book or similar record.

Some of these steps must be done before others, but some can be done as it suits you. You will probably find it convenient to begin a step, such as gathering information about the collection, then leave it to do other steps, such as organizing and housing items, and then return again to information gathering as you get ready to create your catalog records and finding aids.


Start Small

Essential Elements of a Phased Program

There is no need to embark on a major effort to manage your collection. You can limit yourself to these first steps or use them as the starting point for a phased program. It is obvious that some of these first steps must be taken before others but many can be done in whatever order you please.

Record keeping is important. You should draft a brief checklist of what you plan to do; prepare records, however informal, about the collection and its contents; and jot down notes -- a journal of some kind -- indicating what you have done and when you did it.

You should examine each item in the collection, making notes about problems you see and actions you plan to take. In handling the items, keep in mind these simple rules:

1. Examine
2. Place in archival containers
3. Make backup copies of copyable media

Make multiple backups of all digital photographs and other valuable media. Audio cassettes, videotapes, floppy disks, hard drives, CDs, DVDs and other copyable media all have a limited life expectancy and are subject to both gradual deterioration and catastrophic failure.

4. Make photocopies of newsprint and other highly acidic paper

Make photocopies of newspaper clippings and other items on highly acidic, short-life paper. Electrostatic (xerographic) copying is best (copiers that use heat fusing rather than ink jet printing). It is best to copy onto paper that meets permanent and durable paper standards, or, at the least, paper that is acid-free. If you can, you should digitally scan high-acid items as well as photocopying them.

5. Store the archival containers
6. Plan for future tasks

Here are some links to further information on first actions to manage a small collection:

Here are some lists of sources of boxes, folders, and other archival supplies:

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Online Courses and a Software Program

Take a look at these two online courses. Both are self-instructional and intended to provide basic training in archival practices.

Also review The Archivist's Toolkit of the Archives Association of British Columbia. While not an online course, it is structured so that it can be used as one.

The Archivists' Toolkit is an award-winning computer program that automates most archival processes. It intended for use in small as well as larger archives, by people who are untrained as well as those who have professional training. It can be used on a single personal computer (Windows or MAC) or in a network environment. It is an open-source system and there are no charges for downloading or using it. Developed in 2004 by a group of academic archivists with foundation support, it is continually upgraded and improved.

In addition to automating the core processes of archival work (accessioning, cataloging, preparation of finding aids, record keeping, and the like), the system is fully searchable and can prepare administrative reports. It also has tools by which a collection can be made accessible on the Internet.

Here are links to further information about the system:

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Managing Small Archives — The Main Elements

Draft an archives policy statement

program statementBefore doing anything else make the first draft of an archives policy statement. Write down the purpose of this archive you are creating. Think about the time you have to give this project and whether you can expect to sustain it. Why are you setting it up? What do you hope to achieve with it? What collections make up the archive? Do you have only one or are there multiple discrete groups of items? Use the statement to list the collections and outline your plans for each. Put down what items each collection includes, what can be added to it, and under what conditions it will accept items. Will you take in items in any format or only some? What limitations do you have on storage space? Do you have the money to purchase special storage units that may be needed (a map cabinet for example)? Will you take in items that you do not own or over which you do not have full control? Can you establish legal ownership over all that you have? Do you have authority to give preservation treatment to items? What restrictions exist on access to items and on making copies of them? Are there legal or moral considerations about privacy? Continue to revise this draft as you proceed with the processing of your archive and, particularly, as you gather and analyze information about each collection and it contents.

For further information on this topic see the Getting Started section of the Manual for Small Archives, prepared by the Archives Association of British Columbia and Policy Development (both pdf), which is Chapter 2 of the Canadian Council on Archives handbook, Basic Conservation of Archival Materials (also known as the Red Book).

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Acquire and accession the contents of the collection

accession recordOnce you have a first draft of an archives policy, consider how you will bring items into the collection. You probably already have lots of material waiting for your attention, but, even so, you should now ask yourself whether how you will add more of them and, if so, how. Will you buy, borrow, request donation, receive from an organization by mutual agreement? Regardless of where new contents come from, be sure to document each new acquisition. Make accession records that describe the items, give the source, state your legal right to them. You may wish to make the records in the form of receipts, one copy of which you retain and the other going to the source of the items.

Your acquisition record contains the basic information needed for accessioning each new item or group of items that you bring into the collection. Each item or container of items needs to have an accession record and an accession number. You can put a preliminary number on containers now and a final one later, after you have made final decisions on arrangement and have put items in archival storage containers. A preliminary numbering scheme could be a simple serial number or a composite number including a date code and serial number. See the section on organizing the collection for information on the accession numbering.

As you would expect, accession records are your means of keeping administrative control over the collection. They show your legal right of possession and they give basic information that you will need as processing proceeds.

The Archivists' Toolkit User Manual of the Archives Association of British Columbia has links to some sample forms including accession records and a deed of gift. There are also sample forms in Appendix A of the Manual for Developing a Baptist Archives.

For further information on this topic see the Acquiring, Appraising, and Accessioning section of the Manual for Small Archives, prepared by the Archives Association of British Columbia, and also see the Resources section of this web page.

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Gather information about the collection

accession recordsAssemble your accession records and all the other records you can find about each collection and its contents. These might include documents prepared by others who possessed the materials at one time or another, forms that describe them, legal documents or agreements concerning them, records retention schedules, or administrative papers of one kind or another. To pull this information together you may find it useful to do some research on the internet, by telephone, in written inquiry, and in library searches. You may find yourself adding to this information as your proceed with other processing tasks. It's not something you have to do exhaustively before you do anything else.

Do a preliminary review of everything in the collection. Learn what you can from a quick first once-over. Take quick notes of what you find.

Ask yourself some questions about arrangement. Is there a natural order in which the contents have been or should be kept -- by date, for example, or in a numerical record-number sequence? What was the order in which they were originally kept?

Are there restrictions on access to the contents for reasons of privacy, by law or regulation, or by a contractual agreement?

What is the historical context of the collection; what relevant events took place at the time or since that a person using the collection should be aware of?

Look for information that you will need in creating the catalog record and the register or finding aid for the collection. See the section on cataloging, below.

The Manual for Developing a Baptist Archives has some example forms for acquiring information about organizational records in the Records Survey section of its appendix. For further information on this topic see Links to sources on cataloging in the Resources section of this web page, and in particular see Introduction to Metadata from the Getty Research Institute.

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Analyze the contents of the collection

record dataBefore you analyze the collection take a look at your archives policy. Ask yourself some basic questions. Why does this collection exist? Why should I put time -- my work hours -- into organizing and describing it, insuring its preservation, and making it accessible for others to use? What is its main focus? What are its strengths and weaknesses in conveying the importance of this main focus to the world? Am I the right person to be performing this work, or is this so extensive, important, complex, and fragile that professional experience is needed? Do I have the time, resources, and skill that will be needed to carry out this work from beginning to end? Or, maybe, is this work likely to have little enduring value outside my own interest? And finally, do I have full legal right to process the collection or do the rights of others impinge upon mine and restrict what I can do with it?

In order to create the catalog record and finding aid, you must distill the information you gather so that it can be presented concisely without sacrificing accuracy. You need to decide what of it is most significant and what is secondary. You will probably find yourself going back over this process repeatedly as you learn more about the collection and gain confidence in your ability to judge what is important and what is not.

As you examine the items in the collection you should also keep in mind the need to make decisions on organization and arrangement. Review the section on organization and arrangement, below. Make notes on your decisions about this subject.

Similarly, you should make notes on the physical condition of items and the need to provide appropriate housing for them. Record treatment that will be needed and list the housing supplies, such as acid-free (or, preferably, buffered) folders and boxes, that you must obtain. Review the section below on conserving contents so you know whether to remove paper clips, staples, old tape, and the like.

As you did while gathering information, you must keep in mind the categories of data that you will later put in the catalog record and finding aid. See the Catalog section, below.

As above, for further information on this topic see the Resources section of this web page, and in particular see Introduction to Metadata from the Getty Research Institute.

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Organize the contents of the collection

labeled boxesDecide first whether the existing organization of the collection is appropriate. As a primary rule, you should keep items in the order in which they were originally created, maintained, and used. If there is no order or if the original order has been disturbed, try to determine what the natural order of the items should be. For example sets of official documents having record numbers should probably be kept in order by those numbers. Collections of correspondence should probably be arranged by correspondent and sub-arranged by the date of individual letters. For preservation reasons, you may have to subdivide your arrangement by format, keeping photos separate from cassette tapes, for example.

Most collections need to be arranged in groups. They are grouped by format — whether manuscript, book, photograph, or one of the recorded media. They can also be grouped, or sub-grouped, by the creator: the person or organization that created them. They can also be grouped under organizations that were responsible for their creation even when there were individual personal authors.

As you make decisions on arranging the collection, you may wish to make an organizational chart to help you record your decisions. The Manual for Small Archives gives an example of one.

Use unambiguous terms to label the groups and subgroups, terms that are distinctive and not likely to cause confusion. Once you have established your record groups, keep them. Do not be tempted to rename them after you have created your catalog record and finding aid unless you can't avoid it.

Within groups and subgroups you may find it useful to assign record series. They can be numerical, chronological, or alphabetical.

You must provide a location code, shelfmark, or other identifying designation for each container into which items are placed. As you arrange the collection, make decisions on what scheme you will use for this set of codes. No folder, box, or other container may be without an identifier for filing and retrieval. For obvious reasons, your codes should be sequential and simple enough so that they can easily be kept in proper order. Here is one scheme:

A common system is to use the last two or three digits of the current year and a sequential number for each accession received that year. Thus the third acquisition in 1987 would be accession number 987.3; the fourteenth in 1988 would be 988.14. Each accessioned unit will receive its own number, regardless of whether it consists of two letters, six boxes, three photographs, or a mixture of all media types. Thus, an accession including four letters, six photographs, and eight maps will be number 987.5; the different items might have item numbers within the accession, such as 987.5.1 or 987.5.16.
{Source: Manual for Small Archives of the Archives Association of British Columbia}

For more information on this subject see Links to Sources on Organizing Collections in the Resources section of this web page and in particular the Society of American Archivists' page on Labeling and Filing and the Organizing Archival Material section of the Manual for Small Archives.

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Put materials in archival containers and give them a good storage environment

For basic steps on this topic review the Start Small section, above.

preservation boxesThe contents of your collection should be stored in containers that are sturdy and free of contaminants that might damage their contents. Most cardboard boxes and file folders contain acids that contaminate paper and other items and must not be used. There are quite a few suppliers of acid-free or buffered storage containers. The Links to sources of supplies in the Resources section gives a few of them.

Whatever storage container you choose make sure you observe the fundamental rule of conservation: do nothing that cannot be undone if necessary.

In addition to providing proper housing, it's important that you provide your collections with a non-harmful environment. Very few storage areas are able to meet full archival environmental standards, but do the best you can. Ideal environments have low-to-moderate temperature and humidity which remains constant. Locations with substantial temperature and humidity fluctuations are more harmful than locations in which fluctuations are small but conditions are warmer and more humid than the ideal. Light, particularly ultraviolet light from the sun or from most fluorescent lamps, is damaging and should be avoided. Window shades and flourescent bulb filters that absorb UV light are readily available. Air quality should be as good as can be managed. Make sure that heating, air conditioning, and ventilating equipment is properly maintained (including regular changing of filters). Avoid areas that are infested by damaging agents such as insects, rodents, mold, or fungus.

An environment that is kept comfortable for human habitation is much better than one that has no environmental controls. Choose a room in the living areas of a house, preferably an interior one. Rooms that are infrequently used are appropriate, for example a storage closet.

Handle archival materials as little as possible. It is a good idea to wash your hands before handling material or, better, use cotton gloves. Prepare a work surface as described in the Start Small section. Keep food and beverages away from materials. Do not use metal paper clips or rubber bands to secure objects together. Remove ones that you find if you can do so without causing damage.

acidic paperIsolate highly-acidic items, such as newsprint, and, if you can, make archival copies of them. These are usually easy to identify because of their discoloration and brittleness. If uncertain, you can use a pH testing pen to indicate the amount of acidity. To prevent acid migration from one document to another, you should separate acidic items from one another by putting them in clear polyester sleeves or interleave them using acid-free (preferably buffered) paper or glassine sheets. You should also put them in their own buffered folders if possible, rather than interfiling with non-acidic items. When making copies it is better to use an electrostatic (xerographic) copier rather than one that uses inkjet technology and you should copy onto paper that meets permanent and durable paper standards, or, at the least, paper that is acid-free. If you can, you should make digital scans of high-acid items as well as photocopying them.

This topic is thoroughly covered in a highly-regarded online self-instructional course from the Northeast Document Conservation Center called Preservation 101. The course can be taken with a facilitator but that is not necessary. It is designed to be taken in sequential segments from beginning to end, but can also be used selectively, choosing topics of interest using internal navigation that the pages provide. These options are described on the first segment, Before You Begin. You can download any segment in pdf format from the site's PDFs page.

Here are some other useful sources of information on housing materials and giving them an appropriate environment.

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Conserve materials and protect them against deterioration

professional repairDo not attempt any restoration or preservation treatment of an item until you are certain you know what you are doing. If you can afford the cost, it is best to entrust treatment to a qualified professional.

Like the one directly above, this topic is thoroughly covered in a highly-regarded online self-instructional course from the Northeast Document Conservation Center called Preservation 101. The course can be taken with a facilitator but that is not necessary. It is designed to be taken in sequential segments from beginning to end, but can also be used selectively, choosing topics of interest using internal navigation that the pages provide. These options are described on the first segment, Before You Begin. You can download any segment in pdf format from the site's PDFs page. Cornell University Library has a useful tutorial called Basic Remedial Treatment which outlines steps "to make materials usable and to ensure that they won't require major treatment down the road." But it warns that you must be well-trained, work under supervision of a professional, and have the right tools before you should attempt even this basic treatment.

There are many other resources on preservation. Some of them are listed in the Links to Sources on Conservation of the Resources section on this web page. Take some time to review at least these primary ones.