Archival institutions cannot be passive recipients of records judged by others to be worthy of permanent preservation.  As the professionally trained staff who work in the facility, archivists have a direct role to play in identifying and preserving the small percentage of records of enduring value found amid the mass of records generated in the course of daily affairs. (appraisal)  To fulfill this role, archivists must be directly involved in the management of records throughout their life, as part of a continuum of care.  As well as managing those records transferred to the archival repository for permanent retention, archivists must be involved in the design and implementation of record‑keeping systems to ensure that cultural as well as business functions are satisfied.

Few creators of records will have any interest in their records as a potential cultural or research resource.  Furthermore, as the usefulness of the records in the conduct of business diminishes, so does the willingness of the administration to pay for the maintenance and preservation of those records.  If the identification of valuable materials were left to records creators, it is likely that few records would be kept.

Archivists are able to take a wider view.  They look at the records of an organisation as a whole, considering both the information needs of the business and the research needs of the community at large.  Thus archivists can systematically manage the processes involved in the retention and disposal of records. In doing so, archivists must balance three factors:

  • the need for economy and efficiency in any organisation
  • the management of risk arising from the destruction of, or loss of access to, records
  • the duty of any responsible state or organisation to preserve a reliable record of the past.

Principles of Records and Archives Care

Records should be well managed in order to ensure they are protected for both administrative purposes and to serve as evidence of the organization’s work.  The process of caring for records is known as records management.

Records management: That area of general administrative management concerned with achieving economy and efficiency in the creation, maintenance, use and disposal of the records of an organisation throughout their entire life cycle and in making the information they contain available in support of the business of that organisation.

Archives management: The area of management concerned with the maintenance and use of archives.

The care of records and archives is governed by four important concepts introduced here.

These are:

(1) That records must be kept together according to the agency responsible for their creation or accumulation, in the original order established at the time of their creation;

(2) That records follow a life cycle;

(3) That the care of records should follow a continuum; and

(4) That records can be organized according to hierarchical levels in order to reflect the nature of their creation.

These principles and concepts are known as:

  • the principle of respect des fonds
  • the life-cycle concept
  • the continuum concept
  • the principle of levels of arrangement and description.

The Principle of Respect des Fonds

One of the longstanding principles of records and archives management is the concept of respect des fonds.  Originally a French term, respect des fonds is often defined simply as ‘respect for the creator of the records.’  The principle of respect des fonds consists of two related concepts: provenance and original order.  Provenance refers to the ‘office of origin’ of the records; original order refers to the order and organisation in which the documents were created or stored by that office of origin.

Respect des fonds: Respect for the creator of the records or archives, involving the maintenance of provenance and original order.

Provenance: The organisation or individual that created or received, maintained and used records while they were still current.

Original order: The order in which documents were created, arranged and maintained by the office of origin.

The principal of provenance emphasizes the conceptual rather than the physical characteristics of records.  As we have seen, it is the ‘evidential’ nature of records, rather than their physical format, that distinguishes them from other kinds of information.  Provenance also provides the basis for retrieving information from records.  Knowing who created or used a record, and where, when and why, provides the key to retrieval rather than format, subject matter or content of the records.  This is true for modern electronic records as well as the more common paper-based records.  Fundamentally, there is no difference between understanding and preserving the provenance of electronic records – that is, the inter-connections between electronic records and their creators and users – and preserving the connections between a large sequence of nineteenth-century official letters and the registers and indexes that keep track of them.

These principles require that archivists and records managers observe the following guidelines.

  • The records of separate agencies or organisations must be managed separately, even if the agencies in question were involved with similar activities or were managed by the same people. Do not combine the records of two agencies or organisations.  Similarly, the private records of individuals must not be integrated, even if the individuals were related or experienced the same events.
  • Records must be maintained according to their ‘original order’: that is according to the filing, classification and retrieval methods established by the organisation as part of an efficient records management programme. Records offices and records centres must create, maintain and store records according to logical and well‑structured records management procedures.

Archival institutions must not change the original order in which records were received, as that order reflects the way in which the records were created and used.

Public archival repositories that receive government records through functioning registry systems often receive records in a clear and usable original order.  The registry process ensures that the creating agency and the contents of the files are clearly identified.  When records are received in an identifiable order, the archival institution should not reorganize records by subject, date or medium of material.

If registry systems cease to function adequately, there is a grave danger that, as records builds up in storage rooms, cupboards or hallways, information about their creating agency and original order may be lost.  This is one of the reasons records management is so important in ensuring the preservation of a valuable, identifiable record.

Organizations today are creating electronic and paper records in greater and greater quantities; record-keeping systems often do not manage this material as well as one would like.  In order to ensure records are retain their administrative use and archival value, records and archives managers must be significantly involved with the record‑creating process itself, rather than be passive recipients of records that may no longer be authentic or reliable.

Records and archives managers must also become more involved with and understand the processes that lead to the creation of records.  It is not sufficient to study the record and its physical nature and characteristics.  Records professionals must understand the business functions, activities and working practices that cause documents to be made, used and maintained.

Records and archives managers must be involved from the beginning.  For example, it is no use designing a classification scheme that does not match the business processes that give rise to the records to be classified.  Records and archives management must be concerned with all the processes relating to records throughout their existence.

The Life Cycle of the Record

Life-cycle concept: A concept that draws an analogy between the life of a biological organism, which is born, lives and dies, and that of a record, which is created, is used for so long as it has continuing value and is then disposed of by destruction or by transfer to an archival institution.

The life-cycle concept of the record is an analogy from the life of a biological organism, which is born, lives and dies.  In the same way, a record is created, is used for so long as it has continuing value and is then disposed of by destruction or by transfer to an archival institution.  Figure 1 illustrates the life-cycle concept of records.

The effective management of records throughout their life cycle is a key issue in civil service reform.  Without it, vast quantities of inactive records clog up expensive office space, and it is virtually impossible to retrieve important administrative, financial and legal information.  Such a situation undermines the accountability of the state and endangers the rights of the citizen.

Without a management programme that controls records through the earlier phases of their life cycle, those of archival value cannot readily be identified and safeguarded so that they can take their place in due course as part of the nation’s historical and cultural heritage.

Phases of the Life Cycle of Records

In the simplest version of the life-cycle concept, three biological ages are seen as the equivalents of the three phases of the life of a record. In the current phase, records are regularly used in the conduct of current business and are maintained in their place of origin or in the file store of an associated records office or registry.

Current records: Records regularly used for the conduct of the current business of an organisation or individual.  Also known as active records. Current records will normally be maintained in or near their place of origin or in a registry or records office.

In the semi-current phase, records are still used, but only infrequently, in the conduct of current business and are maintained in a records centre.

Semi-current records: Records required only infrequently in the conduct of current business. Also known as semi-active records.  Semi-current records will normally be maintained in a records centre or other offsite intermediate storage pending their ultimate disposal. In the non-current phase, records are no longer used for the conduct of current business and are therefore destroyed unless they have a continuing value for other purposes, which merits their preservation as archives in an archival institution.  (The definition of ‘archives’ was provided earlier in this lesson.)

Non-current records: Records no longer needed for the conduct of current business.  Also known as inactive records. Some records management systems recognise only two phases: current and non-current.  Figure 1 outlines the life-cycle concept of records.

Figure 1: The Life Cycle Concept of Records

The Continuum Concept

The life-cycle principle recognizes that records are created, used, maintained then disposed of, either by destruction as obsolete or by preservation as archives for their ongoing value.  The continuum concept suggests that four actions continue or recur throughout the life of a record: identification of records; intellectual control of them; provision of access to them; and physical control of them.  According to the continuum concept, the distinction between records management and archives management need not be rigidly maintained.  These four actions are outlined in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Four Actions of Records Care

From this principle a unified model has been developed.  The model reflects the pattern of a continuum.  Four actions continue or recur throughout the life of a record and cut across the traditional boundary between records management and archival administration.  These are

  • the creation or acquisition of the record
  • its placement within a logical, documented system that governs its arrangement and facilitates its retrieval throughout its life
  • its appraisal for continuing value, recorded in a disposal schedule and given effect at the due time by appropriate disposal action
  • its maintenance and use, that is, whether it is maintained in the creating office, a records office, a records centre or an archival repository, and whether the use is by its creator or a successor in function or by a third party, such as a researcher or other member of the public.

This division of activities into records management and archival phases, with the consequent division of responsibility between the records manager (or registrar) and the archivist, is seen by some as artificial and restrictive.  The several stages are not really seen as distinct and separate.  Consider the following tasks, for example.

  • Acquisition in the archives phase is the mirror image of disposal in the records management phase.
  • Reference and use in the archives phase are essentially the same tasks as maintenance and use in the records management phase.
  • Arrangement and description in the archives phase is vitally dependent on classification in the records management phase.

The continuum approach means the end of the traditional demarcation between the functions of the records manager (or registrar) and the archivist.  A person responsible for care of records at a particular phase in their life cycle will certainly need specific knowledge and expertise.  However, input will be needed from others who have been or will be responsible for records at other phases of the life cycle.  The registrar, records manager, records centre manager and archivist will all still perform their own duties, but their work will be undertaken within an integrated structure, with no rigid boundaries to limit professional collaboration and development. This collaboration between records and archives managers is most successful if the archival institution can be restructured to serve as a records and archives institution, responsible for all aspects of records care throughout the life cycle.  A records and archives institution would establish a new records service for the whole of the government, corporation or organisation that would include staff working in records offices (registries), records centres and archival repositories.  It would also develop an appropriate scheme of service and job descriptions for all records staff, and it would develop training schemes to prepare staff at all the necessary levels to provide efficient records services throughout the life cycle.

Where records management and archival activities are not integrated, records managers and archivists find that they are often duplicating each other’s work or, worse, undoing or redoing tasks that could have been completed more efficiently had the two phases been considered part of a unified whole. Throughout these modules, the term ‘life cycle’ is used when discussing the record; the term ‘continuum’ is used when discussing the management of the record according to the continuum concept.

Levels of Arrangement and Description

Another key principle to understand when dealing with records and archives is the concept of levels of arrangement and description.

Arrangement and description are two integrated practices designed to make records and archives physically and intellectually available for use.  When arranging records or archives, the institution must recognize the internationally accepted principles of respect des fonds, or respect for provenance and original order, as discussed above.

Archival institutions in particular must be sure to respect the original arrangement of records and ensure their descriptions reflect that arrangement, because they have to make records available and understandable to people who were not involved with the creation or original use of the records.  Archival institutions, therefore, must not only make the materials available; they must also provide information about the content and context of the archives in their care.

Central to the activities of arrangement and description is the understanding that records can be arranged and described according to levels.  These levels place records into categories according to hierarchy, allowing records to be managed as groups rather than individual items.  The terms used to distinguish the different levels of records and archives can be confusing.  For example, in addition to ‘item’, terms that have been used to refer to an assembly of related documents include file, unit, piece, file unit or unit of handling.  And ‘item’ may also be used to refer to the single documents that make up such an assembly.  For the purpose of clarity, the following terms, with their definitions, will be used in this study programme.

Group: The primary division in the arrangement of records and archives at the level of the independent originating organisation.  Also known as archives group, fonds, record group.

Subgroup: A discrete subdivision in the arrangement of archives below the level of the group, usually the archives of a subordinate administrative unit with its own record‑keeping system.

Series: The level of arrangement of the files and other records of an organisation or individual that brings together those relating to the same function or activity or having a common form or some other relationship arising from their creation, receipt or use.  Also known as a file series, records series or class.

File (1): An organized physical assembly (usually within a folder) of documents grouped together for current use or in the process of archival arrangement because they relate to the same subject, activity or transaction.  Note: A file is usually the basic unit within a record series.

Item: The basic physical unit of arrangement and description within a series.  Also known as a piece. Note that the term ‘file’ is also used when discussing computerisation, as follows:

File (2): A logical assembly of data stored within a computer system.  Note: In word-processing systems it is the intellectual representation of a physical document.

The term ‘institution’ is used as a level of description to refer to the institution holding the records being described, such as the National Archives or the Corporate Archives.  Figure 4 illustrates the concept of levels of arrangement.  Note that Figure 4 identifies both the item and the file.  The term ‘item’ is used most often in the archival environment, when discussing the physical units of arrangement.  The term ‘file’ is often used in the records office or records centre, as that is the unit of management in those environments.

The Mission Statement

The archival institution should have an agreed mission statement, approved by the government or creating organisation, by which the success of its programmes can be measured.  A mission statement can be as short as one sentence. For example, The National Archives exists to preserve the documentary heritage of the nation, by preserving and making available for public use both public and private records of national significance.

The mission statement itself should be clear and concise, but it needs to be supported by a fuller policy document setting out the mandate, aims and objectives of the organisation in more detail.

The mission statement should be determined and promulgated by the governing body of the archival institution, endorsed by that governing body and published widely.  The archives staff should be consulted in drawing it up.

The mission statement should be reviewed regularly to ensure that it remains relevant.  There should be a consultative body that revises the mission statement from time to time as part of its duties.

The mission statement of the archival repository should set out clearly the role of the institution in relation to the administration of organisational records and record keeping.  As part of the records and archives institution, the archival institution is the place to which all the organisation’s records that have passed the necessary appraisal tests will come and where the research values inherent in these records will be realised.  A model mission statement is presented below.

Responsibilities under the Law

The following information relates specifically to public sector archival institutions, but the guidelines are applicable to archival facilities in the private sector as well. An archival service should operate under the provisions of specific legislation or policies that validate its operations.  The archives law should include the following provisions: Establishment of the archival facility as a public institution.  The law should grant it the necessary powers and duties.  These include a definition of the jurisdiction of the institution over records generated in the government service and over any other records of importance that are included in the remit of the archival institution. A public right of access to the holdings of the archival institution.  This legislation will include a policy on the regular opening of government records under clear conditions, usually lapse of time, and a workable procedure for sensitivity review and declassification.  Public rights of access should be clearly defined and, as far as possible, follow the best models for this kind of legislation.  Where there is freedom of information legislation, this usually takes precedence, but efforts should be made to ensure that it is compatible with both the letter and the spirit of archival legislation. Protection for the rights of individuals and organisations that may have provided information held in the records, under terms of confidentiality.  These provisions should also conform to the best models.  Again where there is privacy or data protection legislation, this usually takes precedence, but efforts should be made to ensure that it is compatible with both the letter and the spirit of archival legislation.

Provision for public scrutiny of the archival institution and its success in achieving its targets. This provision should ideally include the establishment of structures whereby advice, consultation and co-ordination with parallel services can be obtained in the formulation of policy and the execution of programmes and activities.

Professional Ethics

The professional staff of the archival institution is archivists: that is, they belong to a professional group with an international identity and with an internationally recognised code of ethics. Regardless of the scope of his or her responsibilities, the records manager or archivist in the public sector has an obligation to serve the public.  Good information management is essential in a knowledge-based society.  A public servant, records manager or archivist has a public obligation to conduct his or her job to the best of his or her abilities.  Accountability, ethics, stewardship and commitment are essential qualities in a public servant.  It is hoped that these qualities are found in archivists working in the private sector as well.

Archivists should individually and as a group subscribe to the code of ethics promulgated by the International Council on Archives, as well as to any similar code adopted by the appropriate professional body in their country or region.

Following are the key principles found in many codes of ethics adopted by records and archives professionals around the world.

  • Records professionals manage, appraise, select, acquire, preserve and make available for use records and archives, ensuring their intellectual integrity and physical protection, for the benefit of users both in the present and future.
  • Records professionals perform their tasks without discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex, age or national or ethnic origin.
  • Records professionals encourage and promote the greatest possible use of the records in their care, giving due attention to confidentiality, personal privacy, physical preservation and legislative or policy requirements.
  • Records professionals carry out their duties according to accepted records and archives principles and practices, to the highest standard of conduct.
  • Records professionals contribute to the advancement of records and archives knowledge and skills by sharing their knowledge with other professionals and with the public in general, using their knowledge for the benefit of society as a whole.

The staff of any archival institution are professionals and should be free to participate in the work of the appropriate professional bodies within the country.

The issue of professionalism and ethics is discussed in more detail in The Management of Public Sector Records: Principles and Context and Managing Resources for Records and Archives Services.


The government’s ruling legislation or policy and the institution’s mission statement will identify those archives that should be transferred to the archival institution.  Materials will be transferred from records offices and records centres and, in appropriate cases, from outside sources.  The institution, therefore, must have policies and procedures in place to acquire and process this material.

The transfer of public records from records offices and records centres should be governed by disposal schedules and records centre procedures.  The plan for acquiring other materials should be drawn up as part of the overall programmes of the archival institution.  It should specify what types of material are to be acquired and establish criteria for appraising such material. Accessioning Records from Government Agencies No materials should be accessioned into the archival institution unless they have been prepared in accordance with appropriate regulations or policies.

Accession: The primary unit of records formally received by an archival institution from a particular source on a particular occasion.

The preparation of materials for transfer is generally the responsibility of the records centre or the creating agency.  Preparing archival materials for transfer involves the procedures outlined below.

  1. Arranging them: putting files, volumes, bundles, papers and so on into an intelligible order that facilitates retrieval.
  2. Physically protecting them: making sure that all components of the consignment are tidy and properly packed in their folders or containers. All ferrous clips and treasury tags should be removed and plastic or brass tags and clips used to replace them.
  3. Describing them: transfers to the archival institution should be accompanied by their transfer lists, or they should be described on the accessions form. This description is necessarily brief but allows the material to be brought under control from the beginning.

The Accessions Register

The accessions register is a formal document that records the archival repository’s acceptance of responsibility for the archives it documents and the transfer of custody of the archives to the archival institution.  The accessions register contains the following information, recorded in columns:

  • accession number
  • date received
  • details of archives (series number if known, title or description, covering dates, number of boxes or quantity)
  • source, transferring agency or depositor
  • archival references
  • remarks (including variations to the statutory closed period)
  • date action completed.

A sample page is shown in Figure 5.

The register is intended to be used as an internal control tool of the archival institution.  Because it does not contain any classified information (such as storage location) it may be made available to researchers if necessary, as long as the materials in question are open to public inspection.

The accessions register must be labelled clearly and kept securely.  It is a vital record of the archival institution.  When an accessions register is full, it should be accessioned for permanent preservation as an archive itself.

A separate accession number should be allocated to each entry in the accessions register.  It should be in the form year/number, starting again at ‘1’ each January.  For example, the first accession in 1998 would be 1998/1, the second would be 1998/2 and so on.

The initial entry in the accessions register must be made soon after the arrival of the archives – preferably on the same day, but certainly within five working days – so that formal transfer of custody of the materials is documented and any problems with them are identified and taken up with the body sending them.  This is good archival practice.

It is important to enter the date when any action on an accession has been completed so that an accurate picture of outstanding work can be obtained at any time.  It is very easy to overlook outstanding work, such as assigning archives to series or completing series lists, once the materials have been placed in the repository.

Once a month, repository staff should check the accessions register to monitor what accessions have work outstanding and plan completion by an agreed deadline.

The ‘action completed’ column in the accessions register should not be signed off until all action on an accession, including assigning the materials to a series and the distribution of a final series list, has been done.

The accessions register is directly connected to the accessions form.

Receiving Archival Materials

Materials arriving from sources within the public sector should be prepared by the records centre or transferring agency in accordance with current standards.

If materials are coming from the records centre, the following preparatory work should be done on them by records centre staff:

  • appraisal and selection for transfer according to the disposal schedule
  • cleaning and tidying
  • removal of ferrous pins, clips, staples, treasury tags, and so on, which might rust and damage the records, and their replacement by plastic or a non-ferrous metal such as brass
  • insertion of dummies to replace materials that have been selected for transfer but are missing or have been lawfully retained by the transferring agency

Dummy: A card, sheet or other indicator placed on or near the place where an item is normally stored to denote its removal.

  • labelling items with necessary identifying information (labelling is discussed in more detail later)
  • boxing
  • listing (at least a summary list, giving the original agency file number and title and the covering dates)
  • completion of the relevant parts of the accessions form.

The records centre supervisor should send the summary list, transfer list and accessions form to the repository ahead of the records and arrange a convenient date for delivery.

If the materials are coming directly from a creating agency, rather than the records centre, the same preparatory work should be done by records management staff.  The officer organising the transfer should liaise with the repository about the date and time of delivery.

Archives coming from an external source or private individual may not have been organised or listed prior to their receipt in the repository.  In such a case, repository staff must make sure that the materials are appraised and the physical preparation is done before anything is placed in the repository.

As soon as any archives arrive at the archival institution, repository staff should take the following action:

  • check the archives for signs of insect infestation or mould, and notify preservation department if they need treatment before coming into contact with other, unaffected, accessions
  • check that the archives are properly labelled
  • place the records in a secure temporary storage area set aside for new accessions
  • check the records against the accessions form, transfer list or summary list to make sure that the paperwork does refer to these materials and that all items have been included
  • open an accessions form, if one has not already been opened, and obtain a signature from a representative of the agency sending the archives
  • make an entry in the accessions register identifying the new accession
  • acknowledge receipt of the accession so that the transferring agency has a record of the transfer.

Processing Accessions

The process of accessioning involves arranging the materials into the appropriate groups, subgroups (where appropriate) and series and allocating to them a reference code so they can be controlled at all stages.

When new materials are accessioned, they need to be sorted into their original subgroups and series if this has not already been done.  A brief but comprehensive description of the records should be entered in the accessions register.  This stage is known as ‘processing.’

The concept of levels of arrangement was discussed earlier and is outlined in more detail in Lesson 3.  Complete arrangement is not done during the accessioning process, but it is important to understand the levels of arrangement in order to ensure that provenance and original order are protected.

When materials are being accessioned, the repository will decide if they should be added to an existing series or placed in a new series.  The group and series register is the master record of the groups, series and items of records held in the archival institution.  This register should be updated with information about each new group or series of records received.

If an accession consists of a new series, the repository should allocate the next available series number within the group or subgroup and enter the details in the series register. If the series is the first in a new group, a new group identification code will also have to be allocated.  Item numbers will also have to be allocated, starting at number ‘1’.  The original file numbers, if any, should not be used for this purpose. If the materials are being added to an existing series, the first item should be given the next available number.  This number is obtained from the archives group and series register, which is then updated to show the new last number. A list should be created for each series of archives in the archival institution.  This list serves both as an inventory for repository control and as a tool to help users find the archival references for files or items they wish to see. Ideally, the records centre or creating agency should have prepared a summary list of records, giving the original agency file number and title and the covering dates of each item, before the records were transferred.  In this case, the staff at the archival institution should

  • check the list to see if it serves as an adequate archival finding aid
  • make any necessary improvements
  • add archival reference codes
  • label the items with their archival reference codes
  • add the archival reference codes to the accessions form and register.

If no summary list has been prepared by the transferring agency, archives staff should

  • prepare the archives physically
  • list the archives with archival reference codes and agency file numbers
  • label the materials with their archival reference codes and covering dates
  • add the ‘closed until’ label if necessary (discussed below)
  • box the items and label the boxes
  • add the archival reference codes to the accessions form and register.

Staff should arrange for the final list to be typed, proof-read and corrected.  The master copy should be kept securely.  Copies should be made and distributed to

  • the responsible creating agency
  • the search room, for public reference (if the archives are open to public inspection)
  • archives staff to serve as a working and reference copy.

Staff should update the group and series register as necessary.  They will prepare a description of the series if it is a new one or amend the existing description if necessary.  Any new information must be added to all copies in current use so they are up to date.

In exceptional circumstances, for example, if an accession is large and complex, it may not be possible to complete its arrangement and listing quickly.  In that case, it should be boxed and labelled with the accession number, and all other action on the accession should take place.  However, the accession should not be marked off as completed in the accessions register. Staff will then recognise that work remains to be done.  The work should be included in work programmes as a special project.

Completing an Accession

The final action in the accessioning process is to ensure that all procedures have been carried out and that all documentation is complete.

When all of the above action has been completed, the accessions form should be signed by an authorized member of repository staff and filed by archival reference (series) number and then by accession number.  This file constitutes a record of all materials held, in archival reference code order.  The accessions register provides a record of materials held in chronological order of the date of receipt.

A copy of the accessions form should be put with the materials until they are placed in their final archival storage area, to ensure that they can be easily identified.

Repository staff should send a copy of the completed accessions form to the records centre and another to the originating office.  If materials have come from external sources, that depositor should receive a copy of the form.

A copy of the final series list should also be sent to the originator of the records as soon as it is completed so that the agency or individual has full details of any archives relating to its functions and activities.

The originators of the archives should be able to rely on the security and discretion of the archival institution and its staff.  The institution must ensure that accessions forms relating to materials which are not open to public inspection are not disclosed to the public.  However, forms relating to open records may be disclosed.

Arranging Records into Groups and Series

As soon as possible after archives are transferred, the archival institution should arrange them in proper order, following the universal principles of archival arrangement.

New materials may be in good order or they may be a confused mass of items.  Normally, when consignments of archives are transferred from the records centre or from functioning administrative agencies, they will already be arranged in series that reflect their original order and use.  In other cases, the materials may have been rescued from unsuitable storage and misuse or from non-government sources.  These should be sorted into groups and series, to reflect the systems used when the records were originally created and kept while in active use.  The terminology and the procedures described here are in accord with international standards and practice.

Identifying the Group

A group consists of all the archives arising from a distinct organisation or individual.  Examples of groups include

  • records of the Supreme Court
  • records of the Colonial Secretary’s Office
  • records of the Civil Service Commission
  • records of the Ministry of Justice.

The archival institution should have a clear and agreed policy on defining what is to be included in a group, and this should be set out in internal instructions in an unambiguous way.

The best way of proceeding is to compile a list of groups.  In effect, this is a list of creating agencies: bodies that exist or have existed at any time in the past and that have been responsible for producing archives.

The list of creating agencies is more than just a list of names.  Each creating agency should itself have a description consisting of one or more of the following data elements:

  • the official or authorised name of the agency
  • other names the agency has been known by at any time
  • an administrative history, setting out the origins of the agency, the legislative or other authority under which it acted, its functions and how the agency evolved over time
  • a list of other agencies that were at any time connected to the agency described, both those under the same jurisdiction and those whose functions overlapped or affected the work of the agency
  • a list of archival series documenting the functions of the agency
  • a list of (or reference to) archival series documenting similar or related functions that are or were at some time the responsibility of other agencies.

It is useful to maintain this list of creating agencies either as a card index or as a computer database.  In either case, new entries would be listed under the main heading, the authorised name of the agency.

Reference codes are usually two or three letters, though some archival institutions may use numbers as codes.  The use of three letters is preferred as this gives a greater range of options when creating new reference codes.  Throughout this module, three letter codes are used.

There has been some debate about whether ‘meaningful’ or ‘non-meaningful’ codes should be used.  ‘CSO’, representing ‘Chief Secretary’s Office’, is a meaningful code as it is clearly recognisable as the initials of the agency.  ‘CAB’, representing ‘Cabinet Office’ is also a meaningful code.  ‘BFN’, representing ‘Supreme Court’ is a non‑meaningful code as the name of the agency cannot be deduced or guessed from the letters representing it.

Meaningful codes have the advantage of being easy to recognise and remember.  On the other hand, the titles of agencies sometimes change with the result that the name of the agency cannot be deduced from the reference code.  For example, ‘WOF’ is used to represent ‘War Office’; however, the title ‘War Office’ changes to ‘Ministry of Defence’, even though the functions of the agency remain exactly the same.  The archives of the Ministry of Defence belong in the group ‘WOF’, but the reference code is not now indicative of the title of the agency.

Furthermore, different agencies can have similar names and similar or even identical initials, for example, Personnel Management Office and Prime Ministers Office.  In this case, if meaningful reference codes are used, one of the agencies will have to be assigned a code that does not follow its initials.  This also is a potential source of confusion for users of the archives when they search archival lists or cite reference numbers.

Using non-meaningful codes not only increases the number of possible codes to choose from, as all letters of the alphabet in any combination can be used, but it also avoids confusion when the titles of agencies change or different agencies have similar titles.  In this module, non-meaningful reference codes are used to represent archival groups.

Examples of reference codes are:

BFG                Chief Secretary’s Office

MYD 12          District Magistrate’s office, Ulusuru

As a general rule, the information held in the index or database of creating agencies should be made available to users.  Indeed, the index or database will form the basis of a guide to the institution’s holdings, the top level finding aid.  Users will find the administrative histories important for the interpretation of the archives they are consulting.  Copies of the index entries, or appropriate printouts of the database, should be provided in binders on the search room shelves.

When archival materials are received, the archivists must decide to which group they belong.  In straightforward cases, it will simply be the creating agency or other agency that transferred the records.  However, there are usually many structural changes in organisations over time, and it is very likely that series or parts of series have been moved from one department to another on various occasions.  In these instances, the archival institution should have an agreed procedure.

Following are two possible options for determining groups.

  1. Adopt the name of the last transferring agency as the controlling group. This is a convenient method but it can cause confusion.  For example, series may be listed as belonging to ministries that were not even in existence when the records were in current use.

Example: A series of crop returns have been transferred by the Ministry of Agriculture.  But these crop returns were actually made to the District Officer at a time when there was no specialised Ministry of Agriculture.  At some time after their compilation, responsibility for the crop returns was passed from the District Office to the District Native Authority; later, it was passed to the Regional Local Government Commission and finally to the Ministry of Agriculture.  Listing these archives under the last named may give a false impression about the nature of the records.  It will be necessary to write an administrative history that indicates the relationship of this set of archives to all the earlier agencies that had some connection with it.

  1. List the series as a separate distinct entity and set up linking references to all the agencies that might have had some relationship to it. This method is more accurate, but it may prove difficult to use.  Users have to disentangle the sequence of agencies that had responsibility for the function recorded or for the records themselves at different times.

Example: The crop returns would be identified as records of the particular District Officer.  References would be made connecting those records to the other agencies involved with the same activity over time: the District Native Authority, the Regional Local Government Commission and finally the Ministry of Agriculture.

The first option is recommended as best practice at the present time, but it is likely that the development of standards for the description of creator agencies will eventually shift professional opinion towards the second.  If the administrative histories of agencies are maintained in a good sequence and are available to users, the second option might then be a more desirable choice.

The second option is strongly advocated by some archivists, such as those in Australia, who have developed a sophisticated tracking system whereby administrative histories of creator (and related) agencies are recorded and comprehensive links established between these and each of the archival series held.

Identifying Subgroups

Subgroups may exist within a group where the originating organisation of the group has administrative or functional subdivisions, each of which created records that were managed separately.  Series may or may not correspond precisely with administrative or functional subgroups.  Where a new records system containing a number of series is created, the new system as a whole is usefully treated as a subgroup.

In general, if these functional divisions are sufficiently independent, it is best to treat their archives as distinct groups.  But if the interpretation of the archives requires a knowledge of their connection with the overall originating body, then they should be retained as subgroups.  This question is considered further below.

As a general principle, it is better to have a large number of simple groups than a smaller number of complex groups, each containing a number of subgroups.  Changes in any organisation are a common feature, particularly in public administration, and they will doubtless continue in future.  It is therefore better to keep the structure of archival arrangement as simple as possible.

Determining the Series

The term ‘series’ is used to refer to specific organised sets of records kept and used together as a system in the creator agency, and from which the archives have been selected.

Normally, a series documents a particular function or process in government or in the creator agency or in the activities of the person.  Series should be kept together and in their original order or system.  Files in a registered series will be kept together, as will be any other set of materials that share common features of function, system or form, which show that they were used as a system in the creating agency.

It is not always easy to decide what constitutes a series.  The determination of series will usually depend on the size of the agency and the quantity of its records as well as the way in which they were kept.

For example, if an agency had several large and distinct series of registered files, each dealing with a particular function of the agency, each of these would be considered a separate series.

Example: A large court of law might have kept sets of case papers, various registers, judgement books, order books and so on.  Each of these different types of records would naturally be regarded as a separate series.  On the other hand, a small court might not have kept separate records in this way, or very few of its records might have been selected for permanent preservation as archives.  In the second case, it might be more practical to place all its records in one series.  However, the general rule is that the original system should be preserved whenever possible.

When deciding on what materials should be regarded as making up a series, one factor to consider is whether further accessions are likely.  Subsequent accessions (accruals) can cause confusion or result in the series losing its structure, for example, if the accession contains either a sequence of items for a number of years or annual blocks containing several sequences.  It is worth considering right at the start if the series might become so unwieldy that it would be better split into several more narrowly defined series.

In some cases, older accessions may contain intermediate levels, or subseries.  Subseries may also be common in, for example, hierarchical filing systems based on functions and activities, where particular areas of business are reflected in subseries.  As far as possible these intermediate levels, when they are encountered, should be reflected in the arrangement and descriptions of the records and the formatting of the series list so that they are self-evident.  Designing complex classification schemes to reflect multiple levels is not recommended.  Arrangement should be kept as simple as possible; it is best to work with only the three main levels: group/subgroup, series and item.

Arranging Records within Series

The basic unit of control for all archives is the series.  This is because the series usually represents how the records were originally created and used.

Determining the arrangement of items within the series is usually based on the nature of the series and the original order of the archives.  The order is derived from the way in which records were created, used and kept by the creating agency or individual.  Records are usually kept in files, with a number of materials in each file, according to a subject, a time frame, an issue and so on.

Before any arrangement is decided on, it is essential that archivists should investigate the archives and their originating agencies thoroughly, including doing background reading, so that they understand the archives and their legislative, administrative and historical background  This process is termed ‘retrospective functional analysis’.

Within series, records are often part of a discernible record-keeping system.  For example, a series of financial records might be kept together because they all relate to ‘accounts payable’.  They are all filed appropriately within that series of accounts payable, which is a different series from the ‘accounts receivable’ series.

Alternately, records may have been kept together because they result from or support the same transaction, activity or function.  For instance, all the records relating to organisation and conduct of an annual meeting will form part of an ‘annual meeting series’.

Sometimes, records are found together in series because they are of similar format and relate to a particular function.  Fifty photographs of a construction site may be filed in the series on ‘Health Building,  Construction: photographs.’  Another fifty photographs of another construction site may be filed in the same series under ‘Administrative Building, Construction: photographs.’  However, the photographs of the administrative building and the health building should not be interfiled, as each belongs to a larger series relating to construction of two different buildings.

There are a number of ways of arranging records.  The best way is to retain the relationships and systems established by the creating office or individual.  The archivist should discern whether or not a system existed and then identify and use it as the organising principle for the surviving records.  The original order may relate to how the creating office or individual generated, received and used the records or how the creating office or individual accumulated or collected the records as part of daily operations.

If the original order cannot be determined easily, then there are a number of other types of arrangement that the archivist can apply to make sense of the records.

Numerical order: This is the numerical or alphanumerical order of the original registry system or other numbering system used for the records when they were active.  It is the commonest order and should always be considered first.  If records do not fall into a numerical order then some other suitable arrangement should be devised, one which reflects the reason they were selected, or the way in which they are most likely to be researched.

Chronological order: This is the date order of the materials, arranged by year, month, or even day, if it is relevant.  Chronological order may be based on the first date or last date of each item.  One of these must be chosen and maintained consistently.

Alphabetical order: This order is often used for archives based on places or geographical divisions, such as regions, or on names, such as those of people or organisations.  It is used also for series having no discernable numerical or other order and which contain a wide range of subjects, especially if there can be a further breakdown into subcategories of those subjects, such as Agriculture, with subheadings for buildings, crops, labour, livestock and so on.  An artificial alphabetical order should not be created where an existing registry numerical or alphanumerical order, based upon a coherent subject/place structure, already exists.

Hierarchical order: This is the normal method of arrangement when a series consists of the archives of a body with a clearly defined structure reflecting levels of importance or activity: for example a committee followed by its subcommittees.

Geographical order: This arrangement is used for series of archives originally organised according to their geographical location, such as land records or records created within units of local administration such as school or hospital records.

Record type order: This tends to be used with collections that are artificial, archivally speaking, and that were never used together in an administrative structure during their active life.  Materials are organised by type or medium, such as photographs or maps or posters.  This method should be regarded as a last resort, used only when all other forms of arrangement are unsuitable.

Assigning Archival Reference Codes

To control and retrieve the archives it holds, the archival institution needs to develop and maintain a system for allocating reference codes to all materials in its care.  These codes should be allocated and written on labels as early as possible in the process of accessioning.  The definition of archival reference code included earlier in this module is repeated here.

Archival reference code: The combination of letters and numbers allocated to groups, series and items in order to identify and control the materials.

In practice, all sorts of systems of reference coding are used.  However, recommended practice is for full reference codes to consist of letters identifying the group, followed by a number identifying the series, followed by an oblique stroke (/) and ending with a number identifying the item, for example NPT 3/67. This method, which is described in detail below,  results in reference codes with three main elements reflecting the three main levels of archival description: group, series, and file or item.  Where subgroups exist, these are represented by a number added to the first element, that is letters representing the group, for example NPT 1/4/82.

Separating all reference code elements by an oblique stroke (/) is a commonly used alternative to the method described above: for example, NPT/3/67.  Note that in both methods, it is not possible to tell whether the second element is a series or a sub-group without seeing the whole reference.  Thus, ‘NPT 1’ is a series code in the first example below, and a subgroup code in the second example:

NPT 1/87         [group] [series]/[item]

NPT 1/2/56      [group] [subgroup]/[series]/[item]

To begin the coding process, groups representing central agencies are given letter codes.  If subgroups exist, for example representing regional or local branches of a central agency, they are given the letter code appropriate to their agency plus a numerical code indicating which branch or locality the subgroup represents.

Group:             Supreme Court                                                            GRS

Group:             Ministry of Justice                                                      KDH

Group:             Civil Service Department                                            NPT

Each series within a group is given a number.

Series:              Policy Files                                                                  NPT 1

Series:              Staff Development and Training Files                        NPT 2

Series               Personal Files                                                              NPT 3

Series               Administration and Finance Files                               NPT 4

If the group itself is divided into subgroups, the group and subgroup codes appear together before the first oblique stroke, ‘/’.

Subgroup:        Policy Development Division                                     NPT 1

Series:              Policy Formulation                                                      NPT 1/1

Series:              Policy Implementation                                                NPT 1/2

Series numbers are always allocated as needed, using the next available number in the sequence.  For example, if ARG 6 was the last series number allocated, then ARG 7 will be used for the next series, even if the records have no close connection with those in ARG 6.  The idea of reserving particular series numbers for regularly recurring types of record leads to difficulties and is not recommended.

Within the series, each item or the unit of handling is allocated a number, ideally the next available number in sequence.  These numbers appear after the oblique stroke.

Item:                            volume 3 of the Supreme Court judgement books     GRS /1/3

The full archival reference for a particular file or item is made up of the name of the archives, the group (and subgroup code if one is used), the series number and item number.  Together they provide a unique code for each record.

Archival reference:      National Archives of Erewhon                                   GRS 1/3

Once archives have been arranged into a series it is not good practice to move them to another series and give them a new archival reference.  Moves should be made only when they are absolutely necessary to correct past mistakes in arrangement. When they occur, cross-references must be provided to relate the former and new reference.

Registering Series

The archival institution needs to keep a permanent record or register of all series that it has received or created.  A group and series register may be combined.  If such a register does not already exist, it should be created. If the register does not include all series, such as series accessioned before the register was developed, missing series should be added to it.  Responsibility for maintaining the series register should be assigned to a senior member of the archives staff, for example the head of repository.

It is important that the archives staff update the group and series register whenever any new group/subgroup code and series and item numbers have been allocated so that it remains a reliable source.

Registering series helps identify like materials and categorise records according to their original order.

The purpose of the register is to identify series, track new accessions within them and provide general information about the physical extent of the series.

An example of a group and series register is shown in Lesson 2.

The archive series register may also be used to record how big the series is, that is, the linear amount of shelving it occupies, for purposes of management and control.

When a new group or series is identified, the repository should allocate the next available code letters and numbers and enter the details in the group and series register.

These details are

  • group letters (and number if there is a subgroup)
  • group/subgroup title (a brief description of who created the records in the group)
  • series number
  • series title (a brief statement of whose and what the archives are).

When new records are added to a series, the following information is added to the series register:

  • the last item number
  • the physical extent (linear metres shelving occupied).

The series title provides a brief indication of what archives are in the series.  The series title is intended to help staff and researchers identify the broad contents of a series.

Principles of Description

Description: The process of capturing, analyzing, organizing, and recording information that serves to identify, manage, locate and explain archives and the contexts and records systems that produced them.

Description mirrors the arrangement of the archives, providing a representation on paper of the provenance, original order and content of the archival material.

The international standard used for description is the General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)), published by the International Council on Archives in 1994.  While this standard was developed to apply to archival descriptions included in international data exchange systems, it is used here as the basic structure for a national archival description standard.

ISAD(G) is a set of general rules for archival description that will

  • ensure the creation of consistent, appropriate and self-explanatory descriptions within individual archival institutions.
  • facilitate the retrieval and exchange of information about archival materials.
  • enable the sharing of authority data.
  • make possible the integration of descriptions from different archival institutions into a unified information system.

As general rules they are intended to be broadly applicable to descriptions of archival materials regardless of medium and format or of the level and size of the unit of description. The rules are elaborated in the practical guidance on describing archives that follows.

Describing Archives

As noted above, description is the process of representing archival materials on paper, in order to facilitate their use by researchers.

Fundamental to archival arrangement and description, as set out in international standards, is the multi-level rule.  This states that archives must be organised according to the recognised levels of arrangement and description.  Archival descriptions will generally include linked descriptions between each of these levels.

Multi-level rule: An internationally accepted rule, set out in ISAD(G), requiring that archival descriptions should be completed for each of the levels of arrangement and then linked together.

Archives can be described in many ways and at many levels.  In accordance with the international standard of the multi-level rule, archivists are urged to describe from the general to the specific.  Thus a description of archival records would first be completed at the institutional level, then at the group level, then for subgroups and series and finally for item.  Description is completed for the highest levels of arrangement first, such as the group, subgroup and series, and then for the lowest level, the item, only as time and resources permit.

Following this principle, the first description usually created is the group-level description, which is a brief description of the group and series.  Often this description is followed by an item list of the contents of each series.  If records have been managed throughout their life cycle, an item list may already exist in the form of a transfer list or summary list prepared when the items were transferred from the creating agency or records centre to the archival institution.  However, such transfer lists will need to be checked carefully and, where necessary, amended, corrected or expanded so that they meet the standard of description required.

In many countries the group-level description is referred to as an ‘inventory’ and may be followed by the more detailed lists. Very often, the group-level description is added to a cumulative guide to the holdings of the archival institution, a document that provides an overview of all materials held.

Guide (1): A finding aid giving a general account of all or part of the holdings of one or several archival institutions, including administrative or other background history, usually arranged by groups and series.

Guide (2): A finding aid describing the holdings of one or more archival institutions relating to a particular subject, period, or geographical area or to specified types or categories of documents.

Finding aid: A document, published or unpublished, listing or describing a body of records or archives.

Rules, Guidelines and Standards for Indexing

Several general rules and standards apply to indexing.  All large indexes require strict control, or their usefulness is much reduced by inconsistencies.  Rules and standards must be enforced by the archivist in charge of the index, whose task will include constructing an authority list that must be used by everyone who adds entries to the index at any time.

Indexes must be created according to rules and guidelines, in order for them to be effective and consistent.

To ensure consistency and accuracy, all staff must understand that entries in the index must conform to the standards and rules established by the institution.

Rules for establishing such authority control are provided in another international standard, International Standard Archival Authority Record for Corporate Bodies, Persons and Families (ISAAR(CPF)) issued by the International Council on Archives in 1996.  An extract is provided in Figure 13.

Authority control: The process of verifying and authorising the choice of unique access points, such as names, subjects and forms, and ensuring that the access points are consistently applied and maintained in an information retrieval system.

Access point: An element of a description made searchable with a view to its retrieval.

Rules and standards include the following.

  • Standard spelling and style: The rules should establish specified reference books as authoritative, such as a dictionary of English and other languages used to supply terms and a handbook of style and language usage.
  • Alphabetical order: An established system should be used.
  • Authority lists of corporate names: Specified reference documents may be used to standardise the spelling of corporate or government names, including the official government gazettes. However, many of the names may be drawn from archivists’ analytical work on administrative histories and group descriptions.  The authority list should also cover the list of groups and subgroups.
  • Authority lists of personal names: Again, specified reference documents and rules for the form and order of names will ensure they are indexed accurately.
  • Authority lists of place names: These are usually based on a commonly used gazetteer. Place names can usefully be structured into a hierarchy in which names of broad areas include names of specific places in accordance with a provincial or regional classification.
  • A thesaurus of subject terms: The thesaurus is usually built up by archivists in the archival institution on the basis of their experience in description. However, some ready-made thesauri are available.

Thesaurus (pl. thesauri): A controlled and structured vocabulary of keywords showing synonymous, hierarchical and other relationships and dependencies.

  • Rules for the use of cross-references: These are ‘see’ and ‘see also’ references, and they require that decisions be made on the use of preferred terms, where words of similar meaning are in question. The rules will be closely linked with the thesaurus.

Structure of the Index

Entries in the index should be structured into four elements.

  1. headings
  2. subheadings
  3. archival references for the material indexed
  4. cross-references.

See Figure 12 for an example of an index in card form.

Headings can consist of

  • corporate names (such as government departments, courts, commissions or businesses)
  • personal names (such as names of colonial governors, chiefs, civil servants or missionaries)
  • place names (such as countries, cities or towns)
  • subjects/functions (such as schools and colleges, trade, inquests or land grants)
  • record type (such as accounts, maps and plans or photographs).

These headings will be created in accordance with the authority lists devised by the archival institution. Subheadings are terms that qualify the main heading by focusing on a particular aspect of it. Rules should exist in the authority system for establishing which terms are main headings and which are subheadings.

Subheadings are arranged in alphabetical order under their headings.

Cross-references can be of the following types:

  • ‘See’ references refer the user to the word that has been selected as the preferred term.
  • See: Cattle

In this case, it is intended that all references to cows should be placed under cattle.

  • ‘See also’ references refer the user to other entries in the index that have similar or related meanings but that have also been included in the thesaurus.
  • Gold Coast. See also: Ghana

In this case, the index will contain references under both words, and users will have to search under both terms.

Each index entry should include as complete a reference as possible to the archives identified.  The complete archival reference code should be cited in all index references.

Use of the Index

While the index is on cards, it should be kept in the search room in a secure container.  Index cards should only be removed by authorized staff.  The index should be available for all users, both staff and public. The indexing project will inevitably visualize the future use of computers.  If standards and guidelines have been developed and observed from the beginning, it should be relatively simple to transfer the index from manual to automated systems.

Indexing can help provide access to specific information in the holdings, but it is time consuming and can be a complex task.

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