The Process of Accessioning in Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

December 16, 2019

Archivists bring new materials into their institution’s recordkeeping systems through accessioning. Accessioning occurs when collections are physically and legally transferred to an archives.

Archival records can be acquired in whole or in parts over time in a variety of ways, such as by retention schedule, statute, transfer, gift, bequest, or purchase.

Traditionally, archival accessioning has functioned as the bridge between unprocessed and processed collections. It’s a way to acquire the information necessary to administer the collection when it arrives at the repository. It also gets all the archives’ holdings under a uniform level of control and establishes priorities for future work.

During the time of accessioning, archivists record information about the creators, origins, contents, formats, and extent of the collection. Other activities include a preliminary review of the collection, providing suitable storage, and recording the essential information.

Accessioning Information in Many Forms

Accessioning includes the process of creating internal information systems. An accession register or log assigns the collection a unique number, usually the year plus some identifier, which immediately creates a permanent record for the aggregate. This number also constitutes a chronological record of materials entering the system and a record of the necessary legal and intellectual information.

Files on the donor or the source of the records are also valuable. Files like this can take many forms, such as physical files or a field in a database. The key point is access by the donor’s name.

The locator file tells you where a collection is stored. Collections may be split among several locations for assorted reasons. In archival repositories,it’s more common to label the shelves and then record the location of boxes by stack level, range, or shelf number. Doing so allows you to move collections to make the best use of space and annotate the locator system. Such flexibility is necessary because archival collections tend to grow or shrink, and have materials that require a variety of storage types.

Regarding the accession form, this depends on the repository, but in many cases, this is a MARC cataloging record or a database entry form that containsinformation for both public access and collection management. It usually contains a condensed and preliminary version of what goes in a finding aid, since the collection hasn’t had much work performed on it. If there is a container list, it’s often appended to the accession form for staff and researcher use.

There may also be a dossier, administrative file, or case file created for the collection.From the time a collection first comes to an archives’ attention, information about the records creators has accumulated, ranging from correspondence with the donor, newspaper clippings, information on related holdings in other repositories, and notes from any visit to the donor including preliminary lists of cabinets and boxes. The dossier is an active administrative file to which the deed of gift and any future contact with or information about the donor or collection would be added.

Internal Information to Inform Archival Choices

These forms of accession data are the foundational source of information about a collection. They are internal and thus not public, although archivists may share portions of the information with users upon request. Acquisition files grow over time and are one of the distinctions between how libraries and archives handle acquisitions. Archives are more like museums in this respect.

Through this process, archives set up the kinds of internal information systems that they will add to and continue to use. Any of these records can be augmented over time, and specifically, the information on the accession form can and should grow as the collection is further arranged and described. If acquisitions are performed well, archivists will have reasonable,essential control over their holdings, both physical and intellectual, even before archivists perform the bulk of processing.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and author is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s. Read more of Margot’s posts here, and get your free copy of Margot’s latest book for Lucidea Press, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success!

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