Archival processing is a term used in the United States of America to refer to the act of arranging and describing the papers of an individual or family or the records of an organization. A person who is engaged in this is known as an archival processor or archivist.
Ideally, when an archives receives a collection of papers or a group of records, they will have been arranged by the originator (the original person, persons, or organization that created or assembled the collection or records) and boxed up for the move to the archives in such a way that this order has been preserved. However, collections and record groups are often only semi-organized; sometimes they lack any organization at all. Observing this organization, or imposing one where it is lacking, and then describing the organized material, are the tasks which archivists refer to as "archival processing" or "arrangement and description".
The first steps in archival processing are to gain an understanding of the originator, to observe the material's overall size and scope, and to discover any underlying organizational scheme in the collection or record group. The first of these is needed in order to understand the context in which the papers or records were created. These last two are called "surveying" the material.
Both of these activities should be carried out with two archival principles in mind: respect de fonds and respect for original order.
In regard to the first, which may be translated as "taking into consideration the entirety of the collection," the survey must include activity to ascertain whether the materials in hand are all, or only a portion, of the entire fonds. If the archivist is in a repository that holds other parts of the fonds, he or she should assemble a plan of work that encompasses, or at least acknowledges, the entire set of materials from the same originator.
In regards to the second, the archivist must attempt to maintain the original order of the materials if the very act of record-keeping or if the record-keeping practices of the originator are in themselves evidence of the originator's activities or processes.
Levels of processing
More detailed descriptions than that which results from a mere survey of the material are generally attempted. Beyond the survey, there may weeding of material that does not meet a repository's collecting guidelines, listing of box contents (also called box-level description), folder lists (folder-level description), or even complete inventories that include administrative histories or biographical notes, scope notes, acquisition information, information as to the archival processing treatment the material has received, and organization of the entire collection or record group into categories, known as "series" and "sub-series". Some repositories will even do document-level processing of selected documents within a colleciton or group of records. While there are certain series and subseries that are commonly encountered, such as Correspondence, or Writings, each collection or record group has its own categories of material, and these must be respected.
The level of processing to be done is determined by a number of factors, which include but are not limited to the orderliness of the material, the probable researcher interest in the collection, and the policy and resources of the repository.
The written description of a collection is generically termed a finding aid. These vary in length and fall into several categories by type, with the inventory predominating in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The earliest finding aids were known as "calendars" and generally consisted of a listing of individual documents.
Several standards govern archival description, some national and some international. ISAD(G), the General International Standard Archival Description, defines the elements that should be included in a finding aid. Other content standards also pertain. In the United States, proper names may be checked against the Library of Congress Name Authority Files and subject headings are drawn from the LCSH. Genre terms are often taken from the Art & Architecture Thesaurus. Many finding aids are encoded (marked up) in XML; in such cases, the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) standard can be used. In addition, repositories may follow local practices designed to make finding aids serve their particular mission.
The Society of American Archivists (SAA) has published a number of best practices for American archivists; two important ones are Archives, Personal Papers and Manuscripts, often abbreviated as APPM, and Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). SAA's publication Standards for Archival Description: A Handbook provides an overview of relevant standards for all phases of archival and manuscripts processing. The Research Libraries Group has published a best practices document for use with EAD.
The Society of Archivists, the British equivalent of the SAA, has published a number of best practices for U.K. archivists on topics ranging from school records retention to historical accounting records.
Archival processing often includes basic preservation practices such as removing staples and paperclips, placing materials in acid-free folders and boxes, isolating acidic materials to avoid acid migration, photocopying damaged or acidic documents, and unfolding papers. There has been a trend for archives and manuscript repositories in the past few years to try new ways to reduce backlogs and provide access to materials as quickly as possible, described and encouraged by the 2005 article “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” by Mark A. Greene and Dennis Meissner. Their method discourages these basic practices in the interest of accelerating processing to provide quicker access to researchers. It is dependent on proper climate control, which would slow the deterioration of acidic paper and reduce the likelihood that metal fasteners will rust.
- Archival science
- Finding aid
- Encoded Archival Description
- Manuscript culture
- Society of American Archivists
- Society of Archivists
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