Seek and you will find

Seek and you will find – the art of arrangement

Carleen Dekarski Managing archives

Once you have given an accession number to a collection that you are taking into the archive it is time to start processing it. It is around this time that it becomes clear as to how an archive and a library differ significantly in the art of arrangement.

If we take a library, books can be classified easily by e.g. subject, author or genre, provided a number which is taken from a structured classification system and the book goes on the shelf in that area.  Any new books coming into the library slot in nicely to the shelving system. Yes, this is a simplified view of the process.

With an accession that we are working with in an archive the records contained in the collection may cover a multitude of subjects, activities and created in various formats. This is where an archive and a library part ways.

Archival arrangement is basically examining the records of the accession, trying to understand how and why the records are as they have come to us and how they are ordered then packing, labeling and shelving them so they are able to be accessed for use. We would then be in a much better state to be able to accurately describe the collection which is documenting all that we know about the collection and documenting all the contents. But more on that later in the next article.

While we are arranging there are two core principles we must abide by – provenance and original order.


This principle is about respecting where the material has come from. How? By not mixing the records of one person or organisation with another. What and how records were created by that person or organisation also tells the story of its creation and use. Mixing it with other collections muddies this story. Even if you are only taking in a very small intake e.g. 3 photographs it is tempting to add this to another accession of similar material. No, we will respect the principle of provenance.

Original order

This principle is about ensuring the order that the records were created and/or used in are maintained. Archives are kept in the original order they were created or used as this often shows how the records were used. For example, we take a photograph album that contains pictures of roads, buildings, gardens. You would retain the photograph album as it is and not pull out and re-organise the pictures into like subjects e.g. roads, buildings, gardens. The way that the album has been arranged may indicate how the owner used or referenced the album. We might not know what this is but it is not for us to re-arrange just because we believe it would sit better in a different order. As it turns out the order that was presented in this particular album I worked on had been arranged by the owner to show the timeline of each piece of infrastructure that was built over a 2 year period.

In practice

  1. Space: choose a space to work on the accession and, if possible, work on it from start to finish – this could take weeks depending on the size
  2. Info: gather to hand resources to help you understand the accession – information and notes you took during the appraisal,  descriptions from other accessions, books, organisation charts…
  3. Review:  the accession and get to know its contents – you are trying to understand what it contains, how and why they were created and the order it was created and/or used in
  4. Evaluate: the condition of the collection for any issues that might require preservation attention e.g pests, mould etc (another article will cover dealing with nasties) or  as simple as removing staples, paperclips, rubber bands where you can, unfurl pages etc.
  5. Decide: level of organisation – what level will they be described at Record Group, Series,  File, Item level (more on this in the description article)
  6. Arrange: when ready to the principle of original order e.g. minute books, agendas, hanging files that were ordered by contract number
  7. Store: place into and label appropriate sized boxes
  8. Description: summarise the collection using descriptions that indicate what the material is about, these help form finding aids for researchers. How? Well that will lead us to the Art of Description….

Recognition: Table by Paduurariu Alexandru, Creative Commons Zero licence, published with thanks from

Share this Post