The Archives and Collections Management Primer

The Archives Mission

Archives have a mission to identify records of enduring value, to preserve them, and to make them available to patrons. For all their differences in size, scope, and staffing, repositories share a commonality: they are responsible for the collections entrusted to them for use by future researchers. By embracing the responsibility for communicating these activities through preservation, archivists ensure that the work done today is preserved for future generations.

Archives Defined

Archives and digital archives are materials that an individual or organization accumulates over the course of a lifetime or while conducting business. An individual can collect personal items such as correspondence, journals, and home movies, or career-based materials such as speeches, manuscript drafts, and research files. Organizations produce these types of records, but can also include information relating to marketing, communications, legal issues, and finances.

The term archives has three common meanings. The first denotes materials. Archives are composed of collections of unique records of invaluable importance. They can include letters, photographs, sound and visual recordings, and digital files. The second refers to an agency; the archives is the department or organization responsible for selecting the materials of enduring value, such as a university’s archives and manuscript division, or a historical society. The final meaning regards facilities. The archives is the building that holds and protects historical records.

Archives play a crucial part in documenting memory. Archival records serve as evidence of the many activities, relationships, transactions, decisions, goals, challenges, and achievements that occur daily. Archives not only preserve evidence of past activities, but also of the social role the creator occupies in its local and global world. They allow users to interpret events because they are the closest things to unbiased evidence of what happened in the past. Need help on identifying the right archival project?

The Role of Archivists

Archivists organize and protect permanent records and historically valuable documents. The repositories in which they work provide the materials with environmentally controlled, secure, physical and digital storage, and archivists oversee the proper handling and use of these records. They also make them available for research. Archivists are professionals who are experts in managing a wide range of diverse historical materials, from ancient manuscripts to the latest in digital technology. Archivists are educated and trained to preserve, organize, and provide access to these materials so that our historical record is complete. They are also at the forefront of protecting digital content—creating strategies to adapt to ongoing changes in scale, technology, and standards.

Keys to Successful Archives Project Management Part 1:

Dynamic, Iterative Project Planning

In this webinar, author and archivist Margot Note discusses how you can master your archival projects and meet the challenges Archivists face by working smarter, not harder.

Analog, Digitized, and Born Digital

Both archivists and the users of their collections are interested in the long-term preservation of archival materials as well as ensuring continuous access to them. Consequently, archivists are concerned with preserving both physical (also known as analog) and digital resources (including those that are digitized and those that are born digital and do not exist in analog form) . – Learn more about three digital preservation strategies.

Digitized materials function as surrogates of analog materials. A digital scan of a Polaroid photograph and an MP3 audio file of a digitally reformatted cassette tape are examples of digitized versions of analog items. Items are born digital if they began life in digital form. A Word document, an email, and a photograph from a smartphone are examples of born-digital items. Plan your digitization project with these tips and select the best materials to digitize.

Keys to Successful Archives Project Management Part 2:

Dynamic, Iterative Project Planning

In this webinar, author and archivist Margot Note discusses how to plan your Archival project and why it’s important.

Archival collections may consist of paper documents until a point in time, and then shift to a combination of analog and digital records before shifting entirely to computer-generated records, frequently with duplication between the record types.


Because vast amounts of material are available for acquisition, archivists must define and justify what, how, and why they collect what they do. A collection development policy connects archival material to the overall mission and vision of the archives program while supporting other initiatives within the organization. A collection development policy states what it collects and, more importantly, what it does not. A strong policy also keeps the archives from becoming storage units for unwanted materials.

Appraisal, Accessioning, and Deaccessioning

Evaluation and selection are part of the process of creating and maintaining archives. In the archives profession, these activities fall under the umbrella of archival appraisal. Appraisal is the means of determining whether records have enduring value and therefore should be retained. Appraisal decisions consider several factors, including the records’ provenance and content, authenticity, completeness, condition, and intrinsic value, among others. Appraisal, in this context, is distinguished from monetary appraisal, which estimates fiscal value.

Archival appraisal ensures that only significant records that represent a time, event, place, or decision by an individual, group, or community are kept. Appraisal keeps collections to a manageable size and ensures that archivists’ limited time and resources are not wasted on useless materials. Appraisal allows archivists to shift from the tunnel vision of examining each item individually to considering their records broadly.

Appraisal is also vital for digital files. Many people believe that everything digital should be preserved, especially because storage is cheap. However, the resources to support digital content, such as IT support, are expensive. Additionally, hardware, software, and storage media must be replaced periodically. Not all digital content warrants long-term preservation. Instead, archivists focus on identifying the content that does.

When an archival repository acquires collections, professional archivists accession records according to their collection development policy. When items are removed for destruction or transfer, they are deaccessioned. These archival processes consist of a sequence of formal activities, allowing careful consideration of every collection that enters or leaves an archives.

Original Order and Provenance

Archivists believe that some records ought to be preserved long-term, even after their immediate usefulness has passed—and the records should be maintained as wholly as possible, in their original order, with critical information about context and connections kept intact.

Maintaining materials from one creator together as a group is referred to as provenance. This principle dictates that while archivists create subject headings in their catalogs, they do not rearrange materials in topical configurations.

Archives are differentiated from libraries or museums because archivists organize materials in the aggregate, not as individual items. Whereas a cataloger would create a record for a book or a museum registrar for a painting, archivists organize historical documents by groups. The largest group is the collection for personal papers or record group for organizational records.

Series is the most common unit of archival groupings. A series is accumulated for a specific purpose, during a distinct period, and the records in a series usually are arranged in order. This group may include an apparent filing system arranged alphabetically, chronologically, numerically, topically, or some combination of these. It may be a grouping of records based on similar function, content, genre, or document type. Processing depends on establishing series for collections or uncovering the series that the creator used. A subseries is a body of items within a series that is distinguished from the whole by filing arrangement, type, form, or content.

Processing, Arrangement, and Description

Archivists ensure the future accessibility of their collections through processing. The term refers to the steps that are taken to prepare historical records for use. Processing is the core of archival work because it groups items, folders, and formats into similar units and then structures those units into meaningful relationships.

Archivists act as intermediaries between the creators of materials and the future users of the collections. With their expertise, archivists decide the best ways to provide access to an enormous quantity of records, sometimes consisting of hundreds of boxes in a single collection. Processing allows both archivists and researchers to understand the importance of each collection, what each collection contains, and where each item in the collection is located.

During processing, collections should be arranged first, then described. Arrangement and description are linked, as each depends on the other. Arrangement refers to what items are grouped and the order in which the groups are placed; it is related to the archival principles of provenance and original order. Description is the development of written information concerning archival materials, such as their content and context. (Read more about description here, as well as item or collection-level description). Guides, called finding aids, explain collections in detail and are used to locate materials. Processing also includes some preservation activities, such as rehousing materials in archival enclosures.

At the end of processing, archivists will have both physical and intellectual control over their collections. Physical control is understanding various aspects of the collection, such as quantity and location. Intellectual control is gaining a degree of mastery over the scope or content of the records. In other words, physical control is knowing the “what and where” about the collections, and intellectual control is knowing what they contain.

Making Archives Accessible: Open Your Doors to the World

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Due to their unique nature, archives, whether they are open to the public or accessible to only a small number of users, make providing research services essential. Most researchers do their browsing online—which places greater emphasis on finding aids and mediation by the archivist in a reference interview, or via added discovery tools. (Read more about the benefits of digital archives access) Archivists must have in-depth knowledge of their collections and be able to deliver that information to researchers accurately and efficiently. Additional services, depending on the type of repository, include creating an outreach program, implementing an archives collections management system, producing rich online resources and exhibitions, and developing and evaluating instructional sessions.

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