Practical Processing: Arrangement and Description

Terry Abraham


Most archivists, it seems, started their careers as processors; frequently processors who were forced to learn on he job. "Here," they were told, "read this, then arrange and describe these 200 boxes. If you have any questions, look me up."

The two hundred boxes rise in immense piles or glower dustily from the shelves. So, where to start? The first step, it seems is to take the boxes off the shelves and look inside. After a while it makes sense to take some notes about the contents of each box; this requires some temporary numbers taped to the front of each one, perhaps with some indication of the contents. That is, if it was possible to determine what the contents were; are those letters or correspondence? Are these ledgers day books or journals? Is a scrapbook one item or 250 items? Is that an invoice or a voucher?

But what order shall the boxes take; these "A" files obviously go before the "T" files in that box, but what about the phonograph records? I know original order is supposed to be important, but this is chaos.

And once ordered, how best to describe it. Can't very well describe each postcard and letter although some are kind of interesting, but that would take years. How about if we just list the original folder headings? Okay, but what about "Henry's car" or the folder labeled "Cranks!"? Is this the right way to do this?

Each processor is faced with a multitude of decisions at each step along the way. Archivists and manuscript curators have devised rules of thumb to aid in the decision making process; but at the foundation, only archival theory provides guidelines for decision making.

The core of archival theory has three parts; these affect arrangement more so than any other archival activity. In fact, almost no other aspect of archives has any sort of theory to support it. This may be an indication of the importance of arrangement in the world of archives.

The triumvirate of archival theory are: Provenance, Respect des Fonds, and the Sanctity of the Original Order. Provenance and Respect des Fonds are descended, as might be guessed from the nomenclature, from events of the French Revolution. The transfer of control from the aristocracy and the clergy to the people, and the resultant claims of property rights and other records of ownership, dumped a great mass of confiscated records onto the public archivists. To aid in keeping track of both the lineage of the records and their impact in litigation, the French archivists developed the principle of Provenance which states that the circumstances of a record's creation are an integral part of its evidentiary value and must not be destroyed or concealed.

From this followed the principle of Respect des Fonds as it was noted that it was easiest to keep exact track of where a record originated and how it was used if it was not relocated by reason of its content. Accordingly, subject was not an appropriate reason to refile a record. If an individual or organization created a record, then that item was forever a part of that person or organization's records. This also was applied to sub-bureaucracies; the records of the Department of Health were always to be considered separate from the records of the Department of State.

The final principle, Sanctity of the Original Order, flows quite naturally from the first two. It was somewhat of a later accretion and so it comes down to us in English. Perhaps a result of the rise of German historicism, where documentary evidence (and the resulting footnotes) became the acme of scholarship, original order addresses the evidentiary relationship between one piece of paper and succeeding pieces of paper in a Fonds (or group of records). The historian was becoming aware of the value of context: a letter filed next to a draft of a reply, next to the reply and the response adjacent to that reply told a little story about the event that had more meaning than just the exchange of pieces of paper. Once taken out of that context, each individual piece of paper becomes orphaned, with no sense of its own past.

Aside from the theory of it, are there practical reasons to follow the rule of Provenance? The most practical reason of all, is that those trained in historical research (which is not to say most historians) rely on the evidence of the records to reveal both facts and nuances of the historical past. If a historian of the war-time exploits of the seventh Earl of Doncaster was to find himself in an attic in Leicester with a trunk containing the late Earl's correspondence and the evidence indicated clearly that the trunk had not been touched since the Earl placed it there some forty years previously, certain conclusions regarding the evidentiary value of the material objects in the trunk would present themselves. For instance, all pencil annotations on the letters are contemporaneous with the letters (or at least prior to the closing up of the trunk). The order of the letters is that in which the Earl placed them at the time they were received or as he arranged them before placing them in the trunk. Barring clues that someone else had been into the trunk and had disrupted the Earl's original order, the historian would make some assumptions about the trunk's contents, even before reading any of the letters.

Suppose, however, that the Earl's least favorite nephew, having inherited the trunk and not wanting to be bothered with it, placed it on the auction block to realize additional funds for, let us say, the appreciation of the competitive nature of equine mobility (i.e., the horse races). An American university, as was all too common, purchased the trunk and its contents and dragged it off (amid cries of those concerned with the export of a nation's cultural heritage) and dumped it on the manuscript curator's desk. At this point, the nephew had been all through the trunk, the dealer who had advised the nephew to place it at auction had been through the trunk (and had acquired a few nice autographs in payment) and the auction house cataloger had looked at every item at least twice. Seeking to restore the original order, the manuscript curator neatly organizes the contents into a chronological sequence. The historian, thinking better late than never, arrives and reviews his evidence. The words in the letters haven't changed, of course, but the more intangible clues of propinquity and adjacency are now forever lost. And worse, if the historian assumes -- or is flatly told by the manuscript curator -- that what is in view is "the original order" then it is not hard to foresee the fanciful history that will be constructed.

What this means is that it is just as important to identify -- where possible -- purposeful changes to the order of a body of paper as it is to try to reconstruct that original order. And, that reconstruction may be just as much a fantasy as any Roman bronze with a Greek head grafted on it.

Clearly it is important to understand the role of Provenance and Original Order on historical evidence, but -- far more practically -- is the assumption that it is more efficient (as well as more valid as historical evidence) to use the original order. The assumption is that if there was any order at all, it was created by the originator because it eased retrieval; this is true even if the order is solely chronological by date of receipt, which is perhaps the most common order in the world. If this "original order," no matter how simple or complex, was useful to the originator or the office of origin, then it should be equally as useful to those who follow if the nature of the order can be explained. If it is useful at all, then it is certainly more cost-effective to maintain that order than to create, from scratch, a new and different order which is "theoretically" easier to use.

On all these grounds, then, the importance of the original order is supported as a theoretical principle: it carries the burden of historical evidence, it is cost effective to maintain an existing order rather than create a new one, and, finally, if it was at all useful for the original user of the file then it should still be useful to subsequent users. There is in fact, a kind of organic unity to these arguments.

These three principals (for full definitions see the SAA glossary) then became the rock of theory around which the river of processing flows. Like most dogma, however, they are frequently sacrificed on the altar of expediency. Be that as it may, let us take a closer look at the normal flow of processing.

The first step in processing any group of records is to look into its Provenance: how did it get to the repository, where did it come from, who was the creator, what was their job or position, what was the activity being recorded? The primary place to look for this information is in the accession register.

The accession register (for more information on accessioning see the relevant SAA handbook) serves two purposes: it records the provenance of the accession and it records its disposition within the repository. The first lists the donor or office of origin, any biographical or organizational details, which will place the records in context. Secondly, it will record transactional data about the accession (when it was received, how big was it, what kinds of restrictions have been imposed) and where it has been stored.

With that information, the processor can bring all the boxes together in one place to begin processing. Following the guidelines of archival theory -- and acquiring something like the status of theory itself -- we should note Oliver Wendell Holmes' (not the Supreme court Justice, by the way) exposition on the five levels of archival arrangement. He noted that different kinds of arrangement activities take place at the different hierarchical levels of the repository. For instance, the separation of fonds one from another means that they shall be physically separate; and thus arranged in different places on the shelves. A record group or manuscript collection would be an entity which would have a separate shelf location. Series would also be differentiated and not intermixed. The folders and items within them would be arranged differently depending on the order of the materials. Each of these levels would have a different conceptual organization.

To start at the top of the heap, so to speak, at the repository level; there is one principal concern: that archival records and manuscript records not be intermixed. Even here, at this point we must consider the impact of description. Does it make a difference to the researcher or to the archival theorist if archival records and manuscript groups are intermixed on the shelves, as long as they are adequately distinguished in the catalog? Some university archives stretch the boundaries of Respect des Fonds by treating faculty and alumni records as archival records; not authorized to collect manuscripts, they rationalize the inclusion of non-archival records into an archival repository by declaring them to be, at the very minimum, archivally-related.

Generally speaking, arrangement at the repository level speaks only to the split between archives and manuscripts. Some institutions shelve them separately but administer them under one roof; others have established separate administrative and physical facilities and ensure that the twain shall never meet. For a medium to small institution, it is probably more cost-effective to administer archives and manuscripts together (one reading room, one catalog, one reference desk) and merely shelve the two in separate locations. However, as noted above, if the descriptive apparatus is adequate, there is really no need to shelve them apart.

The difference is that between bibliographic and physical control. Arrangement is concerned with physical control, while description is concerned with bibliographic control. It is an axiom of archival processing that one can maintain the original physical order and yet attain better bibliographic access by rearranging the records, so-to-speak, on paper. Indexes are a common method of providing a rearrangement of information which does not disturb the physical arrangement. It is easy to see that there is a tremendous inter-relationship between arrangement and description, at all levels of control. Archivists, tend, however, to treat them as separate and independent activities.

At the record group or collection level, it is usually easy to see the physical boundaries. This collection starts here and ends there. But what of a body of records which is received in ten-year increments; are they to be shelved all together or are they to be shelved separately and described as one unit; or, should they be both shelved separately and described separately. A thirty-year accumulation would then be in three separate locations and have three separate descriptions in the file. Is this efficient or inefficient?

Archivists, particularly archivists of the old school, sometimes make noises about the classification of record series. Once upon a time, in some sort of borrowing from library classification systems, archivists felt that a hierarchical classification which represented the organizational hierarchy was an effective way to arrange record series. The classic example of the implementation of this idea and a full-scale retreat from it occurred at the National Archives in the 1940's. Finding a hierarchical system unworkable, particularly in the face of ongoing and massive changes in governmental agencies and operations, the Archives created the Record Group concept. Basically, this would apply an arbitrary number to a series of records grouped around a major administrative unit, such as the Department of Agriculture. The benefits of this system are still not perfectly described, but it did have one, unlooked for, benefit: it separated the numerical arrangement from the organization hierarchy. It doesn't make any difference if Agriculture is RG 1 and Transportation is RG 2 or vice versa. The numbers are just for convenience in labeling.

So, if you discard the whole concept of maintaining an arrangement that reflects the organization, you realize that if the description makes the hierarchy clear, all the arrangement needs is a location number. Each series, or each record group, or each manuscript collection can just be numbered sequentially so they can be put on the shelf quickly. In fact, different accessions from the same office can be filed under different location numbers; after all, it is the descriptive system which lets the researcher know that the two groups are connected in some fashion and it doesn't really matter that they are from the same office at different times, or from subordinate offices at the same time. Once they've been numbered, it is possible to find the box on the shelf.

Series offer the same sort of complexities; how are they to be defined; what are the boundaries between them? It is easy to identify the contents of a box, or a folder but how do you arrange them. Or, more to the point, how do you maintain the original order in their arrangement?

Let us go back to the 200 boxes piled on the floor to see if we can resolve some of these difficulties. A search of the accession records reveals that while this group was received as a unit, a prior (and much smaller) accession from the same family had never been processed. These records are then recovered, although still kept separate, and added to the larger whole. A quick pass to survey the records reveals that they are all of a unit: they deal with the activities (multiple though they may be) of one family. Accordingly, this is determined at the first level of arrangement to be one collection.

The next step is to identify, temporarily, the major series and sub-series. There are a multitude of definitions of series, but the one I find most useful is that "If it looks like a series, it must be a series." This kind of certainty is only acquired after many years of contemplation of series. Generally speaking a series consists of a group of records which are consecutively arranged and have a common format. A chronological group of incoming and outgoing correspondence would be easily identified as a series.

Frequently, the processor finds that there may be three groups of correspondence, each having the attributes of a series. The solution, in this situation is to make them sub-series of a correspondence series. One processing supervisor once argued that any one manuscript collection had a maximum of seven possible series; by the judicious use of sub-series the arrangement outline (for it is frequently presented in outline form) always showed seven or less series. He called these "super-series."

Another archivist argued that before you dealt with series at all, you had to consider sub-groups, a hierarchical entity between manuscript (or archival) groups and series. His definition of sub-groups focused on hierarchical arrangements outside the records themselves. An office with three functional responsibilities but one filing cabinet, would find its records organized to follow the functional responsibilities. Although this frequently required a measure of re-arrangement that is foreign to most archivist's sense of the proprieties, sub-series are an eminently useful idea. Some records do, upon examination, prove to have been divided by their creator into groups reflecting different functional activities. A scientist, for instance, may maintain distinctions between records relating to research activities, grant administration, teaching responsibilities, and professional organizations. Each of these sub-groups may contain a correspondence series, a financial records series, etc., but the distinctions were maintained by the creator. Another scientist may have the same split of functions in her professional career, but keep only one correspondence file, one financial file, and one photograph.

It is also useful when contemplating the records of several generations of one family to assign the separate records of each individual family member into a separate sub-group. I remember overseeing the processing of a governor's personal papers. They were donated by the widow of the governor's son. As a single group they contained both the governor's personal political files and his business records; a business to which the son inherited. The records, then, mixed the father's papers, the son's papers, and the records of the business. Among them were the father's file of letters received from the son when he was away at school. The son's papers contained the letters he had received from his father during that period. An unwary processor might have felt it necessary to remove the father's letters from the son's papers and place them with the father's papers. And to move the son's letters from his father's collection back to the son's papers. While this would reflect the creation of the documents, it violated the original order of the records themselves.

A good rule of thumb, then, is to divide sub-groups on the basis of function or activity and series and sub-series on the basis of form, that is to say, correspondence, invoices, vouchers, photos, etc.

Through all this dividing and organizing, it is easiest to maintain -- in one's head if not on paper -- a rough outline of the component parts. This outline should consist of brief statements of the sub-groups, the series, and sub-series.

At the box or folder level, things are generally arranged on a less philosophic plane and a more physical one. Each box should be filled but not so full that folders can not be removed and returned. There is little point in trying to make sure that each series ends at the end of a box. It is sometimes useful to adjust box fullness so that is the case, but it shouldn't be a reason to leave a box half-empty.

Folders, by the same token, should not bulge full of paper. Most archival boxes and folders are of accidental materials yet both can only hold so much. Generally, folders have score lines on the bottom which allows each to be given a flat floor for holding groups of records. It is usually easy to see how to match the fold with the folder's contents. It is sometimes useful to reduce the number of folders (and the number of descriptive entries) by combining adjacent folders to make up one with enough paper in it. The file may have separate folders for As, Bs and Cs; but if each of those three folders has only one or two pieces of paper, it is reasonable to combine them into one A-C folder.

Most offices and quite a few individuals find it most useful to file incoming new materials into the front of the folder; this leads to a reverse chronological order. It is easiest to claim this as the original order and to leave it alone rather than attempt to refile the contents into a more normal chronological order. This is theoretically best and practically best, as well; for it reduces the amount of time spent processing.

It is clear that the arrangement of the records proceeds in a non-linear fashion. It is not purely a matter of taking each box as it comes off the shelf and proclaiming that to be the original order. An analysis of the overlying structure of the records is necessary, followed by an outline -- or series list -- presenting that structure. Only then can the individual boxes and folders be physically moved to fit the new structure. Once that is established, and everything has been moved, it is best to number -- if only lightly in pencil -- all the boxes in straight sequence and all the folders from one to the end. Some advise starting anew with folder number one with each box but I would recommend one numerical sequence for all.

The big question about arrangement, of course, is how to resolve the question of the "best" arrangement in the face of conflicting demands of Provenance, original order, researcher convenience, and administrative management. In many cases, it is refined even further, is the processor restoring the original order or creating an entire new one?

Keeping in mind the hazards of presenting a particular order, however modified, as the "original order," how do you decide to start fresh with a new order and how much of the old order can you keep? The simplest answer is that you keep the original order only as long as it is useful; when it is so fragmented or so bizarre as to impede research and access, then the processor can legitimately decide to discard it. That is not a choice to be made lightly, however.

Order! Order! Order!

The urge to tidy-up the original order -- "to make it more useful" -- is very strong; and should be resisted to some extent. It is a most serious decision to monkey with evidence in the expectation that things are being improved. That is not to say that it is not done, and can not be justified. Earlier, I mentioned combining the contents of thin folders into fatter folders when the sequence is straightforward. That is, to some eyes, at least, tampering with the documentary evidence.

It is difficult to lay out for you instances of reordering that goes beyond what is necessary; each collection is unique and quite different. Each must be evaluated on its own terms. I find it easier to instruct processors to "listen" to the papers, to be watchful for the subtle clues of organization and order that are frequently scattered among the paper. File-marks, for instance, are common among records of organizations. These are instructions from the recipient of the letter or document to the clerk who will be doing the filing. They may be subjects written in the corner or names underlined in the document; in either case they are clues to the original filing order. It is also helpful to have a sense of commercial filing methods of different time periods. The alphabetical, chronological, or decimal file each enjoyed their hey-day at different, and frequently recurring, times. Awareness of filing systems is also helpful; letterboxes, accordion files, file cabinets, hanging files: all tend towards slightly different kinds of original order. In other cases, knowledge of the function of the office provides powerful clues as to the probable filing system. Personnel offices frequently file by names; lawyers tend to file by cases; and real estate offices might file by location. Numerical systems almost always require an index or key, which should be looked for.

Of course, when you have a small group of miscellaneous manuscripts, the original order is usually not significant. But a jumble of five items is a lot easier to deal with than a jumble of five thousand items. Even in the larger group, however, the order of series and sub-series is seldom a matter of significance. In an office environment, different series are usually quite definitely located in different physical locations. It is only when the archival processor is arranging them on the shelf that questions of the order of the series in the whole group becomes important.

The rule of thumb for these situations is to order the series in sequence by importance to the office or to the researcher. This almost always means that the correspondence series is placed first for experience has shown that both the office of origin and the researcher rely on correspondence more than any other group as a base for judgments. As a result, financial records, with their odd-sized ledgers and non-standard sized reports can be placed at the end of the group where they can be most easily shelved.

Once it has been determined that the original order is lacking or is incomplete, what are the choices for re-ordering? These are basically three: chronological, alphabetical, and subject. A chronological order places everything in a series in chronological order; January before February, 1899 before 1900, and so on. Since we live instant by instant in a chronological sequence, as the future passes through the present on its way to becoming the past, this order is generally quite useful. Two objections can be raised, however.

The first is, in dealing with correspondence, to determine the filing date. Some offices stamp each incoming item with a date-stamp to mark the actual date of receipt, but most individuals don't bother. If they toss their incoming correspondence in a file folder as they come in, however, a sequence by receipt is automatically established. To create a chronological order where none existed is to frequently rely on the date of writing and not the date of receipt. (It should be clear that to the writer, the date of writing is the most significant date, but to the recipient, the date it is read is most significant.) However, these distinctions are only useful to a very small group of scholars and, as a result, except in very special cases such as a literary correspondence, are ignored. It is quicker to group materials by month (or in smallish files, by year) and leave the order within each folder entirely random.

It used to be recommended that the manuscripts processor carefully pencil the date in the upper right-hand corner of the letter surrounded by brackets in the English fashion: [1 March 1905]. If the month was known but not the date, then just March 1905 was recorded; and if just the year and no month or date, then [1905] was all that was necessary. This makes it easy to sort and file the documents: items with no date were filed first, followed by the earliest year, then the earliest month, then the earliest day. This would establish an order as follows:

[n.d.] i.e., no date
[3 January 1905]
[29 February 1905]
[March 1905]
[6 March 1905]

The assumption that these are in chronological order is then complete; however, it is an illusion and a fabrication. Particularly, if some of those dates are annotated with question marks to indicate that the dating is by guesswork or other analysis. Items with no date, for instance, are placed first so that the researcher will read them first in the sequence and can then evaluate them in the context of reading the others in their dated sequence. This is a useful theory, but the fact is, that they are not necessarily in any actual chronological sequence. They are in a contrived sequence that attempts to be chronological. Its success at that can usually not be measured.

The second objection to a chronological order arises from those who approach a group of records knowing names but not dates. If they are seeking all the letters of Senator Foghorn but don't know when he might have written, they are then forced to skim all the letters in the off-chance that the Senator was a correspondent. In a small file, this is not much of a burden; but in a large series, it can be quite onerous. The answer is to develop a name index to the chronology (which moves you into questions of description) or to order the material by name or subject.

An alphabetical sequence by name is another common filing system; most persons are familiar with the twenty-six letter codes and can figure out that "BEAT" will be filed before "BEET." The advantage of this system is that it brings all the letters by one individual together in one place; Senator Foghorn's correspondence will be among the F's. For the processor, there are a number of traps to this sequence which should be watched for. The first is determining when a letter is from an individual and when it is from an office; a shipbuilding firm would most likely deal with a succession of naval procurement officers and that sequence is best illustrated by placing the letters under "N" for Navy rather than scattering them throughout the alphabet under the names of the individual officers. The relationship to the originator or organizer of the records should be considered paramount.

The second trap to watch for is the mixture of personal and professional correspondence: the professional materials have last names by which materials can be filed. The personal letters frequently are so informal as to deny the processor the key term required to file the letter in the correct position.

The third trap, of course, is that an alphabetical sequence destroys the chronological order. A researcher interested in documenting the time sequence represented by the documents will have a much harder time of it.

A subject based file, common to many existing systems, creates little pockets of information focused on specific tasks or activities. To a processor establishing such a file from scratch, however, the arbitrariness of defining subjects and deciding that some items are about this subject and not that subject can lead, if not to a paralysis of the decision making ability, to a flippant catch-as-catch-can attitude.

One observer noted a commercial practice which combined the alphabetical and chronological approaches in such a way as to provide the best of both. It was noted that files in which the incoming correspondence are filed by name and the outgoing correspondence by date are cross-indexed. If you know the date, you can look up the correspondents; if you know the name, you can look up the dates of other letters. Some read in this a call to reorganize already ordered files in this fashion; this assumption was later denied by the original author.

As indicated above, many of the problems of arrangement -- one item can only be located in one physical place -- can be resolved, to a certain extent by enhanced descriptive practices; the use of indexes are a particular example. These will be more closely examined in the next section; however it should be recognized that arrangement is the key to access and description should above all enhance the arrangement.

Archivists should be aware that they are only one-half of the access equation; the researcher -- who frequently approaches the papers from a completely unanticipated direction -- is the other half. It has, over the past half century, become clear that arranging materials to suit the anticipated needs of the researcher is not possible and is counter-indicated by the researcher's need to stay as close as possible to the original order. What has not been realized is that the access equation means that time and money spent by the processor to ease the researcher's burden diminishes the researcher's expenditure of time and money. Put another way, an unprocessed body of paper (besides being unprofessional) would mean zero expenditure by the archivist and 100% expenditure by the researcher. A calendar or item-by-item list by the processor may require a 90% expenditure by the archives but only 10% by the researcher -- actually, by all researchers, each individual researcher would have only a small expenditure of that 10%. Accordingly, the processor needs to weigh the amount of effort devoted to a body of records with the assumption of part of the responsibility for access by the researcher. The lesser expenditure by the archives naturally means a greater expenditure by all the researchers. Of course, the increased burden on each individual researcher would be slight as the burden would be spread, to some extent, among all who use the records.

I had once maintained, after several years of seemingly concentrating on collections once considered processed, that processing, like history writing, needed to be redone once each generation. The shift in how we analyze, arrange and describe collections seemed to be so great that I assumed that another twenty-five years would bring similar improvements. A shift has taken place, but in cataloging, not processing. The earlier change, as noted by Richard C. Berner, from "library" practice to "archival" practice is now going in the opposite direction in cataloging. The current approach for processing, as stated by Helen Samuels in the MIT Processing Manual, is to assume that it will never be done again; this is the processor's first and last chance to do it right. This denies the folk-saying, as true about archives as libraries, that "libraries never have enough money to do it right the first time, but they always can find money to do it over."

Processing practicalities

Once we get past all the major decisions, what is processing really about? Like the work of commercial airline pilots, it is 90% tedium and 10% excitement. Fortunately, the exciting parts are seldom life-threatening. However, it is difficult to maintain a sharp critical eye out, watching for clues, when one is counting pages, removing paper clips, or refoldering letters. In a large collection it is impossible for the processor to read every piece of paper, but it is not impossible to scan quickly through great quantities of paper while keeping an eye open for the exceptional and the extraordinary. It is clearly not a job for a drudge, even if parts of it are drudge-like in tediousness.

Every processor should have a separate work area consisting of a secretarial-quality chair (this seldom happens, processors usually get the dregs from the surplus furniture room); a large work-table, 6x3 feet is probably as small as can be used; lots of light; adjacent shelving; convenient supplies of acid-free boxes and folders; and a supply of pencils and notepads, typewriters or computers. (Even if the computers are stand-alone units with only word-processing software and a printer, they are worth the investment. The ability to revise text quickly and without the pain of retyping makes the recent generations of personal computers ideal for text-dependent activities like container lists and inventories.)

Also useful to the processor are a handy reference collection to verify names, dates, positions, and assignments. Barring access to a full library, this should consist, at the very least, of a dictionary, a thesaurus, a large biographical dictionary, any local biographical dictionaries or Who's Who, an institutional telephone book (useful for determining lines of authority and responsibility), as well as federal and state organizational manuals. In addition, each archives frequently maintains its own biographical data file in its area of concern: a university archive, for instance, will find it useful to prepare an index of faculty members.

Faced with a large backlog, or a constantly arriving succession of new record groups, the processor might be forgiven for processing only those groups which seem in some way interesting. This might be a viable procedure but it is not very systematic. A good system is to have proper accessioning procedures record each group as it comes in (see the SAA Fundamentals of Accessioning). At that time, it is possible to flag particular groups as high priority so that they will be processed more quickly than others. otherwise, it makes good sense to process things in FIFO order: First In, First Out. In other words, the older unprocessed materials have a higher priority than newly received items.

This is useful as a general rule, but there should be the flexibility to respond to more immediate pressures (oftentimes of a political nature) to process some more recent collections earlier than others. Contrariwise, it is sometimes worthwhile to hold off processing a collection until later than its normal turn; the usual case is where additional materials are expected to be added to the initial accession.

Nevertheless, whether strictly followed as a linear succession, it is important that the processor know what things need to be processed and in what order. Moving some groups ahead and some groups back for particular reasons do not change the general thrust of the sequence: the longer it has been in storage, the higher priority it is to be processed.

The difference between processing records one hundred or two hundred years old and processing records which are only twenty-five years old is that with the more recent records the potential for ethical conflicts increases. I have had, at different times, processors uncover a brother's application to West Point, a former husband's corporate personnel records, and a photograph of the processor as a student. These and other less dramatic circumstances reinforce the notion that all processors must keep in mind: records are created by people for people. In addition, they may be documentation of human frailties as well as human triumphs. Leaving aside the strictures of law and custom, particularly those of the Buckley Amendment of 1977 which extended a particular privacy right to student records, archival processors are frequently faced with ethical questions.

Training of processors should emphasize the essential right to privacy which all donors would expect. Neither the donor nor the repository will benefit by the spreading of juicy stories gleaned from a particular collection. In an archival situation, the strictures are more substantial; the records are official records and the restrictions imposed on them in the office of origin must be imposed on them in the archives unless released for specific purposes. Those purposes seldom include the idle gossip of clerks.

Let me count the ways.

Privacy and confidentiality are then the major issues of an ethical nature. Processors should be instructed to not take their work home with them; the funny stories and great letters are to remain known only at the workplace.

Other ethical issues which should be covered include concealment of materials through misplaced idealism (let's not mention theft, in this context); the identification of living individuals who may be known to the processors; and the manipulation of the arrangement or description to present or conceal a specific fact. To turn the latter around, I once humorously suggested that, contrary to normal practice, we retain the canceled checks of a former governor to forestall any allegations of misconduct.

Any large project is best handled by breaking it into smaller portions and dealing with them one at a time. A large collection is processed in the same way: it is divided into series and sub-series, then each box or folder is processed individually. After a bit, the entire operation becomes quite natural and regular.

Irregular collections also exist; these are usually smaller, one or two cubic feet or so. For some reason a small collection can have twice as many different parts as a large collection. (And I speak here of manuscript collections, not archival groups.) There might be a batch of letters, a group of photos, a scrapbook or two, a mess of clippings, some old textbooks, a few income-tax returns, and some other miscellaneous papers. To treat these in the same highly organized fashion as a large collection is both a waste a time and a misuse of resources for the research value is not only slight but can easily be determined by a quick glance through the box. Accordingly, it is not necessary to spend a great deal of time on its arrangement (or, for that matter, on its subsequent description). The arrangement should be self-evident to anyone who opens the box and looks and looks at the contents. The important tasks for the processor is to weed out the purely unnecessary material and ensure that those who would find this material relevant have an opportunity to open the lid and look inside. A folder by folder inventory, plus a series description, and biography are, in effect, gilding the lily.

Costing it out

Like everything else in this world, processing manuscripts and archival groups costs money. In many archives, however, the cost is hidden in one or more of a variety of ways in much the same way the building costs -- the rent -- is hidden. When an archival or manuscript repository has budget, and very few do, the costs are usually divided as follows: salaries and wages, supplies, equipment, and travel. Benefits to salaries (frequently as high as 25% of those salaries) is seldom counted as part of the cost of doing business.

Overhead -- heat, light, telephone, etc. -- are seldom charged to an archival budget. Accordingly, the costs of processing are disguised because they are a part of salaries, a part of supplies, a part of equipment, a part of travel; but the size of that part is frequently unknown.

These are all real costs, however, for it takes staff (i.e., salaries and wages), equipment (shelves and hand trucks and computers), supplies (boxes and folders, paper and pencils), as well as heat, lights and telephones, to make any primary source material available for research. Since these costs are hidden, is it worthwhile to try to split them out and determine how much it is actually costing?

Generally speaking, it is probably not that useful to calculate precise costs of processing. The only point in doing any statistical counting is if the information will be used to evaluate and take action on some problem. (Note, however, that having baseline figures from some "normal" time is useful in determining if a problem actually exists.) If nothing can be changed as a result of collecting and presenting data, then it is not worthwhile to collect it in the first place.

There are two situations where it is useful to calculate the cost of processing. The first is in preparing a grant application where correctly working out the initial budget may mean completing the project with grant funds or having to finish it off on institutional funds. In addition, grant reviewers are increasingly considering the effectiveness and efficiency of the grant dollar and are unlikely to authorize an award if the costs for processing seem too high.

The second situation where costing out the processing is useful is in internal management of the processing activities. This is not so much a matter of calculating dollar costs as figuring processing time. For instance, if a collection needs to be completely processed in time for the exhibit staff to ransack it for a specific, prescheduled display, can you certify that it will or will not be done by that date? Although time is truly money (especially when considering processing costs) it is true that different institutions with differing staffing patterns would have completely different costs. However, the time involved for a routine processing job should be about the same.

For comparison purposes, then, it is more convenient to establish ratios of time per cubic (or linear) foot. Analyses from a number of institutions over the past decade have demonstrated that, on the average, an experienced archival or manuscript processor can arrange and describe about one foot every 25 hours. A full-time processor can do nearly two feet a week at that rate. Accordingly, if the collection is 100 cubic feet, then it should be completed in 250 hours, give or take a few. (See Abraham, Terry, Stephen E. Balzarini, and Anne Frantilla. What is backlog is prologue: a measurement of archival processing. American Archivist 48:1(Winter 1985)31-44. for more numbers and bibliography.)

A quick analysis of any one year's processing data -- assuming that data has been collected -- would supply numbers which would adjust that 25 hours to fit institutional requirements. If your institution, for one reason or another, averages 30 hours per foot, then use that figure in your planning calculations.

No matter which number (and the variables affecting it are considerable) is used, once determined it provides a planning tool to compare processing rates with accession rates; to evaluate the staffing of processing in comparison with reference or some other activity; and to internally (i.e., within the archival establishment) manage resources to get the necessary job done. And, if a specific dollar per hour figure can be attached to the processor's work, it makes possible questions such as: "Is this collection worth the nearly $9000 in staffing alone it will cost us to process it?" On top of that, of course, one must add the cost of supplies and materials, the percentage of overhead costs, and the frequency and quality of research activity in that area.

Those who weigh dollars instead of cultural values are prized more in the business world than in the rarefied atmosphere of historical research; but when one is approaching the business world for support (as one must do when institutional and governmental funds are diminishing) it is appropriate to keep in mind both the cultural and dollar values of any archival activity.

Basic Preservation

Going through the actual processes of physical arrangement, foldering and boxing, is the ideal opportunity to take those actions which, although slight, will provide some measure of long term preservation. (For more information on archival conservation, see Ritzenthaler's basic handbook.) Following a close second after providing the proper temperature and humidity controls in the archival storage area, using acid neutral storage materials is the next best thing that can be done. By placing materials in boxes and folders constructed of acid-neutral paper or cardboard, the archivist removes one of the major hazards to an archival group. Acid migration is the term for the ability of acidic papers to contaminate those non-acidic papers adjacent to them. In addition to self-destruction, an acidic folder, for instance, can eventually destroy all of its own contents.

This does not, of course, deal with the problem of textual materials written on acidic papers. Newspaper clippings, telegrams, carbon copies, and other less than good papers also have a deleterious effect on their neighbors. Some archives make it a policy to photocopy important clippings or other low-quality paper but high-quality content items onto acid-neutral paper. This is quite an expensive option. One solution (although temporary, it is good for some decades) is to isolate a bundle of clippings from the adjacent correspondence by placing it in a separate acid-neutral envelope or folder. Eventually, of course, the clippings will be gone; but in the meantime, they will be available for the interested researcher without spreading their destruction to the other materials in the group.

It should be recognized, however, that in all likelihood, few of the other papers in any group of papers created during the past century is free from its own internal combustion engine. Most papers for letters, memos, notes, and records are in themselves acidic to some degree. Some will last longer than others and most will last longer than newsprint, but the hazard exists nonetheless. Solutions to this problem are not arrived at through archival processing. However, an awareness should exist of the importance of careful arrangement prior to any planned reproduction (such as microfilming) which will fix its order for all time in a format that is not the same as that presented by the papers themselves.

Although not strictly a preservation activity, the elimination of duplicate and extraneous material is an essential part of the processor's activities. Duplicates usually consist of multiple copies of publications which were never distributed. It is important to watch for duplication of whole files which once served a purpose now long gone. These are more common in office files. In personal papers, there is usually more extraneous material than duplication. These consist of books, pamphlets, and other printed items received as part of the donor's papers but which have no evidential value related to the donor. They should be disposed of by transfer to an appropriate library. Another common extraneous item are the envelopes from correspondence. In only a very few cases can the envelopes be justifiably retained as evidence. In general, it is best to dispose of them. Note, however, that envelopes with stamps have some value in and of themselves. They should be saved and disposed of through sale or trade to a stamp club or dealer; the money can be used to buy more preservation supplies. And, some stamp collectors purchase manuscript collections for the stamps and would be interested in learning that the old letters might be of use to somebody else.

Fasteners play a major role in any filing system: paper clips, slide-fasteners, staples, rubber-bands, and a host of others. A good general rule for the processor is to remove all fasteners. Paper clips, staples, and other metal fasteners should be removed because in any contest between the metal fastener and the paper, the paper will lose and will suffer accordingly. Old-fashioned straight pins are commonly seen in older files; these are hazardous to both the papers and the readers. A common problem with staples and papers clips is rust which bonds them to the paper and makes them very difficult to remove. A pair of side-cutting wire cutters are quite useful in these situations. For unrusted staples, the best remover is the plastic handled squeeze type that forces the staple open with the least damage to the paper. The slim, wedge-shaped removers, whether affixed to a stapler or not, I once considered the best design for removing staples because it had no moving parts and the wedging action operated on the prongs of the staple in a smooth fashion. Over time, I've realized that, while a classic design, it is more harmful to the papers than the squeeze-type of staple puller because all of the force of the wedge forcing between the tangs of the staple are carried by the paper itself. The squeeze-type, on the other hand, wedges from both sides of the staple and the force is not fully directed at the paper. In either case, it is best to use the staple remover on the under-side of the staple; pop the staple's tangs upright and then carefully pull the staple out from the other side by hand. If the staple remover approaches from the top, the effort tends to pull the partially opened staple through the paper tearing the paper at the holes.

I've never seen that one before.

In some archival institutions, the stapled connection between two pieces of paper is considered to be so important an evidential fact that steel staples and clips are, because of the hazards of rust, replaced by non-rusting brass staples. The stapler ingeniously converts a roll of brass wire into quite small and discreet staples as the handle is pushed down. It is a marvelous little machine, but the attack on the paper is the same. Others use non-rusting plastic paper clips to serve the same purpose but for long-term storage and use, these can be faulted for much the same reasons as the steel clips; they abrade, deform and tear the paper. It is probably best (not to mention easier, quicker, cheaper, and more efficient) to let the adjacency of the paper demonstrate their relationship; that is, after all, the notion behind the whole of the Rule of Original Order.

Rubber bands, over time, lose their resiliency and exude harmful oils and should be removed. Adhesive tapes should be removed but the process requires chemicals and the fine hand of the conservator and should not be attempted unless one has the knowledge and equipment and the materials deserve that kind of expensive attention.

Removing staples and placing materials in acid-neutral folders are very simple tasks that should be a routine part of every processing activity. The long-term benefits are substantial, but it should not be assumed that this constitutes an effective preservation program. It is merely the least one can do.

Environmental Impact

After dealing with the efforts to preserve the archives, it is important to speak to efforts to preserve the archivist. The environmental hazards of being an archivist are many but seldom are they given any attention by the profession. They tend to fall most heavily on the processor, for the processor is the one who literally lives with a body of records for weeks or months.

Working conditions for processors tend to be only one step up from the Black Hole of Calcutta; poorly lit, unpainted concrete walls, industrial shelving, no windows; its a wonder that people are willing to work under those circumstances. It is true that some archivists put a brave face on their work space by putting up posters or funny signs rescued from the discard pile, but by and large, there is little institutional support for improving their lot.

And, on top of bunker-like work spaces, processors should be on guard against a variety of other hazards. Unbraced shelves, for instance. A range of shelves seven high and forty feet long filled with archival materials weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of the proverbial sixteen tons. It is a good idea, when shelves are being installed, to personally inspect the bracing.

Another hazard given scant attention is weight-lifting. Archival processors are usually expected to press seventy to a hundred pounds, to snap and jerk at least fifty. Lifting a standard bank-type transfer box from the floor to the table is made doubly difficult by both the weight and the shape. Every archivist should learn to lift boxes safely and with the utmost care for their own muscular and skeletal limitations. And always use the leg muscles instead of the back muscles; crouch down instead of bending over; and call for help before attempting to lift a large box.

Many archives have shifted their boxing patterns to the cubic-foot records center acid-neutral box which effectively halves the number of boxes but doubles their weight. The full consequences of this trade-off have yet to be seen.

Some attention has been paid to the hazards of working with unprocessed collections. As in your mother's saying, "You don't know where its been." Archival materials are almost always dusty, but the constituent parts of that dust have not been analyzed. Archivists with dust allergies of any sort have to choose between a torment of allergic reactions or a life spent on decongestants and antihistamines. Industrial or rural storage of papers may also involve contamination by pesticides or insecticides. While toxicity levels have probably been reduced by the passage of time, evidence of bugs, birds and mice among old papers are common enough that processors should be aware that others may have noted similar signs and attempted some chemical solution. Another common problem is mold. Damp papers in warm environments are perfect breeding grounds for mold spores. Most are not aware that even when the paper has dried and the mold has been brushed off it is merely hibernating. With the right conditions it will become active again. Even dried, however, mold spores are frequently an allergen and can cause reactions.

There are no real safeguards to these hazards; but they are hazards which should be kept in mind. Dust can be vacuumed; molds can be fumigated; animal remains can be removed. It might be prudent to wear dust masks, rubber gloves, and lab coats when accessioning a new collection and giving it its first cleaning. All processing facilities should have a sink and other facilities for washing up.


The arrangement of primary source materials is the process of organizing a body of materials to meet two goals: to maintain the evidential value of its original creation and to make it possible to find specific materials as needed. Maintaining the original order, when that is possible, meets both requirements for the originators of the file had the same need to find specific items as do all later researchers. Since it is not always possible to keep the precise order of creation, or even to recreate it when it has been lost, archivists have devised a number of other schemes which permit access to the materials.

All of these, including the original order, are hampered by the impossibility of any filing system (save one overwhelmed with photocopies like some congressional files) to place any one item in two spots, both of which are appropriate. Attempts to resolve this difficulty generally involve a reordering of the material in theory with appropriate reference to the actual, physical order of the materials. This solution, however, is one which falls under the rubric of description, and will be treated in the following section.

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January 1999 / arrange.htm /