Information for Community Archives: Archives 101: Basic Principles

Information for Community Archives

Archives 101: Basic Principles / Paula Jabloner


Archivists must gain intellectual and physical control over the historical material they acquire. Intellectual control means knowing what the pieces of an archival collection are, where they come from, and how they fit together. To achieve intellectual control is to be able to answer the question, “What is this?” It follows then that the archivist must take physical control of the collection and be able to tell you where it is. For a librarian physical and intellectual control are intimately connected. All books bearing the same subject matter will be put on the shelf next to others of the same general subject. For an archivist, these are separate tasks. A collection of someone's personal papers may hold many different subjects. Archivists use the concept of provenance to organize collections; meaning that the person or organization that produces the collection determines its content and organizational scheme. The Principle of Provenance states that documents of one provenance must not be intermingled with those of any other provenance. In other words keep all materials from Donor X as the Donor X collection and do not create subject files on any one topic by mixing Donor X and Donor Y materials together. By keeping all the unique materials created by an individual or organization together you enable the researcher to understand the individual or organization more fully as well as authenticate the origins of the materials.

Processing is a catch-all term commonly used by archivists to encompass all the actions undertaken with a collection to preserve and make it accessible or in other words the work of taking intellectual and physical control of a collection. It entails four distinct activities: appraisal, arrangement, description, and preservation.

Appraisal involves determining the research value of individual collections and their many component parts. It is arguably the most important, though often the hardest function archivists perform. While processing, appraisal centers on decisions of what to keep and what to discard. Some decisions, like eliminating duplicate copies of a document, are fairly routine. Others require more archival experience. Appraisal is also practiced when acquiring new collections and evaluating whether they are worth the organizations long term commitment to preserve materials.


Arrangement consists of organizing the components of a collection into a systematic and understandable whole. If the collection has a discernable original order , it is preferable to adhere to that order when processing a collection.

Description entails producing an inventory and guide to the collection. The guide may include a historical or biographical sketch of the subject, a discussion of the significance of the collection, selected highlights; access restrictions; references to related materials in other collections and whatever additional information one decides is important to convey. This is called a finding aid.

Preservation encompasses a variety of activities done to stabilize a collection's contents in order to slow down their inevitable deterioration and protect them from further damage. The most common preservation activities performed during processing are re-housing the contents in non-acidic folders and boxes, and removing destructive materials such as paper clips, rubber bands, moldy paper, PVC plastic, and highly acidic newsprint.

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