Archival Arrangement Principles

Margot Note

Margot Note

November 21, 2022

Archivists provide clarity to collections. They help users understand records of enduring value: what they are, who created them, and what events they represent. 

To do so, they identify groupings of records. Then, they explain aggregations of records through appraisal, processing, and description. Through the archival process, archivists transform complex groupings of primary sources into insightful and succinct information through arrangement and description. 

The relationship between records creators and their activities is revealed by how creators kept records. When groups of related records are discovered, they should be maintained. To do otherwise may result in losing information about how the records were created. Standard aggregation methods start at the general groupings and get more granular. 

Original Order

Whatever method creators use to file records, the arrangement should be preserved in the archives. Archivists correct filing errors and restore order to sections that became disorganized over time. However, restructuring a filing system is unnecessary and ill-advised. Archivists prefer that records be maintained in their original order, as it guides the interpretation and understanding of records, revealing events, processes, and other organic activities. Archivists preserve this evidence for future users.

Provenance and Respect des Fonds

Another archival principle related to the original order is provenance or respect des fonds. The principle of provenance requires that the arrangement of records reflects the structure of the organization that created them. The records are arranged in a way that reveals the hierarchy of the records creator. Adhering to this principle preserves the evidential value of the records: evidence of the structure and functions of the organization.

Respect des fonds is a French term for the same principle, which prohibits mingling the records of different creators. Thus, the principle of provenance discourages the wholesale rearrangement of archives. Instead, archivists can highlight information on related topics or subjects without obscuring the primary purpose of the archives, which is to document the institution, its structure, and its activities.

Keeping the records of one creator separate from the records of other creators—physically and intellectually (through description)—ensures that contexts of creation and maintenance are preserved.

Record Groups

Applying the principle of provenance facilitates the creation of record groups: the building blocks of archival arrangement. The record group is an assortment of materials related to activities or creators. For example, an organization may have a record group of materials created by a board of directors. 


Subgroups are the next level of the archival hierarchy. There is a subgroup for each functional subdivision under the record groups. For example, in a board of directors’ record group, subgroups exist for the functions overseen by the board, such as committees, fundraising, or significant projects. 

Series and Subseries

Within the record group and subgroups, series are the next subordinate records grouped based on their creation, activity, use, or form. Series within a board of directors’ record group might include annual reports, minutes, and correspondence. Series subdivide even further into subseries when appropriate. For example, a correspondence series might divide into subseries for incoming and outgoing correspondence.

File Unit (Box or Folder Level)

With the series and subseries, archivists may have descriptions based on boxes or folders. These are units into which items are grouped for filing. For paper records, folders may contain several documents or items. For instance, a file unit for a board of directors may be a folder of correspondence from a particular year. 

Document (Item Level) 

The document is an individual item, such as a photograph, a memo, or an annual report. 

Archivists often do not focus on item-level material unless the item is of particular importance. One example could be the founding document of the board of directors, which would have significant historical value to an organization. 

Levels of arrangement allow archivists to create physical and intellectual order to collections. Applying archival principles and arrangement levels preserves the context of the collections and represents the records over time as the archivist understands them. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here. And stay tuned for the release of her upcoming book, The Digital Decisive Moment: Transformative Digitization Practicesthe next title in our Lucidea’s Lens series.

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