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 The name of the process by which records are received in an archives is accessioning. Accessioning is the first step in organizing your records, in giving you control over your holdings - legal, physical, and intellectual control.

A. Accessioning

Each item or group of items that is accepted by an archives is called an accession and is given an accession number, a number unique to that item or group of items. You may use any numbering system. Many archives use the last two digits of the year plus a number for each new accession. The first accession of 1990 will be 90.1, the second 90.2 and so on.

The number is written on the containers in which that accession is stored. The number also goes on an accession record that describes the item or group of items, tells from whom they came, gives the date, and indicates where they will be kept. Accession records may be kept in a book or on separate sheets of paper. A sample is in Appendix A and a blank form is in Appendix B.

Accession records are kept in numerical order. But you may find it handy to have this same information filed by the name of the donor or of the office from which the records were transferred. Statement of gifts, correspondence, and other papers relating to gifts or transfer of records should be filed with the appropriate accession records.

Accession everything in your archives. You may find that your convention, union, or body already has a historical collection, records that someone had the foresight to keep but did not accession. Assign a number and make an accession record for each record series, in order to establish a written record of what is where in your archives.

B. Arranging and Describing

Accessioning makes it possible to find things. Arranging and describing gives you better control over your archival holdings.


Archivists arrange official records by record groups, so the first step in arranging your holdings is to establish your groups. Consider how your convention, union, or body is organized. Prepare an organizational chart. Include every board, agency, or department that creates or receives records. Consider offices that no longer exist but whose records you want; does some current office have the same or similar responsibilities? Expand your chart to include all units that ever created or received records.

Name a record group for each unit of your convention, union or body that has or had authority to carry on activities in a somewhat independent manner. These are the units that will have unique records. Your first record group, for example Record Group 1, will be that of your governing body. A second, Record Group 2, might be your board of missions; a third, your board of education.

Record groups are subdivided into subgroups. Your first record group would include subgroups for each office within your governing body: 1A for president; 1B for secretary; 1C for treasurer. You may subdivide subgroups and will probably find it necessary if you have a complicated organizational chart.

Once you have established your record groups, keep them. Do not change your arrangement scheme every time your convention, union, or body reorganizes. Consider the functions of new units and fit them into your scheme. If, however, new units have entirely new functions, establish new subgroups or record groups.


Within each subgroup are many record series. If you have forgotten what a record series is, look back on page 7. Archivists do not arrange record series but keep them arranged as they were used in the office. The user has already established an arrangement scheme, usually chronological or alphabetical. The archivist discovers the scheme and uses or adapts that arrangement system.

Within a record series there may be sub-series. For example, annual meetings would be a series; one year's annual meeting would be a sub-series. One year's meeting generates many records, and these would be in file units arranged as the person who was responsible for that meeting used them. To maintain them as they were used allows the future researcher to most fully understand that meeting.

Unfortunately, not all records will reach your archives neatly arranged. When they do not, you will have to establish order. Discover the source of the records to determine the record group: What unit in your organizational chart created or received them? Consider the subject or form of the records to determine the record series. Look at the file units of that record series you already have. Do the new records contain new valuable information? If so, arrange them to fit in with the already established arrangement.

You rearrange the records of your convention, union, or body as little as possible. You keep them in a manner that reflects its organizational structure and workings. The arrangement tells part of the story.


Personal papers and records of organizations other than your convention, union, or body are different. They are not your records and do not belong to any of your record groups. You will want to establish separate arrangement schemes for them.

You might call all of them collections and assign them numbers and/or names. For example, you might establish presidents' collections as Collection Group 1. Each president would be a subgroup. In each subgroup could be that president's own personal papers plus donations from other people of items that relate to that president.

Arrange items within a collection in the manner that seems most reasonable. Arrangement could be by types of materials: diaries, letters, photographs, clippings. It could be alphabetical or chronological. If items are already arranged, leave them as they are.

If organizations other than your convention, union, or body designate you as their official archives, you will want to establish for each of them a record group arrangement. Follow the same procedures as in arranging your own organization's records.

For more help in the hands-on work of arranging materials, see under "Processing".


Arrangement helps you get records into permanent storage. Description helps you find them again.

Description is the preparation of finding aids. Description is writing the answers to these questions: Whose records were these? What activities do they document? When were these records made? What is their format? How many are there? How much storage space do they take? Are they in good condition? Are there restrictions on their use? Where are these records? How are they arranged?

You prepared the first finding aid for items in your archives when you accessioned them. You made an accession record that answered several of the questions listed above. As you process (see below), making decisions about the arrangement of those items, you will learn more about them and can answer more of the questions. You can add that information to the accession record and enhance its value as a tool. See the samples in Appendix A to see how an accession record can be altered after the items have been arranged.

You can add lists of file units to your accession record. You may never have time to list every folder title in every record series, but you may find it helpful to have lists for record series that are most popular with researchers. An example of a list is in Appendix A and a blank form in Appendix B. Lists can be added to inventories. A complete inventory of your archival holdings would begin with a brief history of your convention, union, or body and a description of its organizational structure and its major activities. The inventory would continue by describing Record Group 1, giving the history, structure, and functions of the offices whose records are in that record group. It would describe each subgroup and record series. It would indicate the dates and quantity of records in each record series and sub-series and how they are arranged. Then it would go to Record Group 2, 3, and all that you have. For a sample of a partial inventory, see Appendix A.

Inventories and accession records, even with lists added, are finding aids for those who are acquainted with organizational structure and know which office would have been responsible for the records they seek. Most researchers would prefer subject indexes. Unfortunately, indexing is very slow work and cannot be a priority for a new archives.

Some archives provide subject access to archival holdings with a card catalog similar to that used by libraries. The card should include the collection/accession number, title or main entry, size (number of items or dimensions), brief description of material, access restrictions and subject headings. The catalog card may also refer to a more detailed inventory, index or listings available to researchers.

Make copies of this card. One copy will be filed numerically by the accession number. This file corresponds to a librarian's shelf list of books. Other copies will be filed alphabetically in the main file: one copy by title; each of the other copies by one of the listed subjects. Before filing, you will have typed each of the subjects on the top of a separate card. See examples in Appendix A.

Descriptions of all your holdings, even if those descriptions are brief, are preferable to detailed descriptions of only a few record series. Complete accession records for everything in your archives before you begin work on other kinds of finding aids.