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Rhoads Memorial Archives: Archival Processing


Rhoads Memorial Archives Processing Manual



Processing is one of the most important functions of an archives. It is the activity whereby materials deemed to have enduring value are arranged, described, and preserved, in order to protect their physical and intellectual integrity and make them more accessible to researchers. The purpose of this processing manual is to ensure consistency and quality in the handling of archival materials. The manual defines basic archival terms and concepts, and outlines the proper procedures to be followed when processing the materials in Rhoads Memorial Archives at Mount St. Mary's University. Processing turns disarray into order, and provides greater accessibility of archival materials to staff and researchers.


Background Research

It is important for the processor to obtain background information into the person or entity whose records are to be processed. This background knowledge will assist the processor to place the records into the proper context. Background research will also enable the processor to make informed appraisal decisions based on the degree to which the records document significant areas of the creator's activities. Reviewing secondary sources is the best way to learn about the details of an organization's structure or a creator's life. The processor can also obtain information from individuals with particular knowledge of the subject.

When secondary sources are unavailable, information can often be gleaned from the collection itself. Notes and photocopies of particularly enlightening background information may be made and kept in the accession file until the finding aid is written.


Preliminary Inventory

Archives staff often lacks the time to process a large group of records immediately upon their accession. Therefore, for the intervening period, a preliminary inventory should be created in the form of a box and folder title list to provide both physical and intellectual control. The inventory will describe the arrangement in which the records were packed by listing the folder titles in order. This should reflect the order in which the records were kept in their originating office. If the records are obviously out of order but their original order easily reimposed, minimal rearrangement may be performed at this stage during reboxing in order to improve access. The preliminary inventory will provide a certain degree of access to the material for staff and researchers until processing begins.

During this process, survey the collection quickly to glean as much information as possible regarding the context of its creation, its arrangement, preservation needs, potential series, and processing strategies. The records should be left in their original folders or envelopes.

Small accessions may be integrated into the appropriate collection if time permits. The processor notes on a separation sheet or the preliminary inventory where the material was placed.


Records of the University offices and departments are the product of daily activities and many are vital to documenting the University's history, actions, policies, programs, and decisions. Whenever possible, original order should be maintained when processing archival records. It is not only the most practical and useful way of processing a group of records, but the records' original order also has important evidential value.

Personal papers are materials collected by an individual which document his or her personal or professional pursuits and interests. Like archival materials, materials are arranged by series, which generally are imposed after an analysis of the creator=s life and work, and the donated materials. There is usually no inherent order, and much more rearrangement is required to place them into series. Personal papers are often arranged by type or form of the materials, such as biographical material, correspondence, writings, organizational affiliations, photographs, scrapbooks, artifacts, memorabilia, and other audiovisual materials. After the series arrangement for the collection of personal papers has been determined, the processor must decide what kind of order to impose within each series: usually chronological or alphabetical, or, rarely, some other.

Before undertaking processing, the processor should quickly survey the collection to determine

which office or person created the records

what is the arrangement of the records.

If no logical arrangement is apparent or the original order destroyed, rearrangement is acceptable.

The processor must consult with the archivist to determine the most useful organization of the institutional records and personal papers for the purposes of access and retrieval. Prior to processing any materials, the processor should submit a processing plan to the archivist for approval, which provides a brief overview of the content of the records and the proposed arrangement into series. Preservation concerns and activities will also be addressed in the plan.

Archival and manuscript collections are generally organized in the following manner: Record Group, Record Title, Series, File Unit, and Document/Item.


Record Group (n): A record group is a body of organizationally related records based on function (i.e., originating body, format). There are two kinds of record groups:

those based strictly on provenance, such as the records of the creating body or organization, such as the records of the Public Relations Office or Alumni Office, or the records of the Seminary

Collective groups that bring together like bodies of materials, such as personal papers, publications, audiovisual materials, or artifacts.

Record Title (n): A record title reflects a subdivision of a record group. A record title usually reflects a type of record, such as publications or photographs, or the records of a specific office, body, or office holder. Examples are The Records of the Public Relations Office or The Elder Family Papers.

In some record groups, record titles may be arranged into subgroups to maintain hierarchy and provenance. An example is Record Group 12, Local Records, which is divided into two subgroups, Emmitsburg Town records and genealogical records.

Series (n): A series is defined as file units or documents arranged in accordance with a filing system or maintained as a file unit because they relate to a particular subject or function; result from the same activity; have a particular format; or because of some relationship arising out of creation, use, or receipt. Typical series include correspondence, publications, speeches, or subject files.

For personal papers, correspondence may be broken down further into family, personal, professional, business, third-party, incoming, and outgoing correspondence, and fan mail.

Other types of documentation found in personal papers include writings, subject files, diaries, address books, awards, bills and receipts and other financial records, biographical information, deeds, estate papers, genealogical material, greeting cards, legal papers, memorabilia, obituaries, photographs, wills, brochures, newspaper clippings, pamphlets, and postcards, or other ephemera.

File Unit (n): A file unit is an aggregation of documents brought together in such a way that they may be treated as a unit. Bound groups of documents and folders or loose documents are the most common file units.

Document/Item (n): A document/item is a single record. Single items within file units are filed chronologically, alphabetically, or a combination of both.

As you go through the records, determine:

To what office or person do the records really belong?

Are they, in fact, from the person or office indicated on the Accession Record? If not, where are they from, and how did they become attributed to another office?

Is this a continuation of a record title already processed?

What is the arrangement of the records? Remember that the original arrangement of the records should be maintained. Never rearrange an accession without consultation with the Archivist.

Once these questions can be answered, processing can begin.




General Guidelines

Processing is the preparation of the records for permanent retention and for research use. The processor goes through the records folder by folder, item by item, and appraises them, deciding what is of permanent value. Items not found to be archival should be separated out. Depending on agreements made with the originating office or donor, the discarded records will be offered back or the archivist will see to their destruction. Note that in some cases, papers usually discarded may be retained because they are the only existing documentation.

The following guidelines of what to discard should be kept in mind while processing.


Papers which originated in other offices and were broadly disseminated for general information.

Items which just happen to be among the records which really have nothing to do with the operation of the office or with the individual.

Processed or published materials that are received from other organizations, activities, or offices that require no action and are not required for any kind of documentation or background material leading to a decision, because the originating organization is required to maintain record copies.

Information copies of correspondence, directives, forms, and other documents on which no administrative action is recorded or taken.

Routing slips and transmittal sheets adding no information to that contained in the transmitted material.

Tickler, follow up, or suspense copies of correspondence which are duplicates of the original.

Duplicate copies of documents maintained in the same file.

Multiple copies of the same letter, form, request, etc. A sample, however, should be selected for preservation.

Superseded manuals and other manuals and other directives maintained outside the office that is responsible for retaining them.

Catalogs, trade journals, and other publications that are received from outside institutions, such as federal agencies, commercial firms, and private institutions, and that required no action and are not part of a case on which action was taken and are not covered by the Archives' Collection Policy.

Working papers and notes which contain no substantive information.

Drafts of reports and correspondence which contain no new substantive information.

Housekeeping records.

Materials which are maintained by an individual for reference, such as a reading file.

ALWAYS USE A SOFT LEAD PENCIL WHEN WORKING WITH OR AROUND ARCHIVAL DOCUMENTS. Never write in ink on a document or folder. As you process the material, take notes about quantity, dates, subjects, and names. These notes will later be used to describe the records of the collection of personal papers.

ATTEND TO THE PHYSICAL CONDITION OF THE RECORDS. Replace the folders and covers with legal size, acid-free archival folders. Use archival plastic sleeves for storing fragile documents, or photocopy onto acid-free paper. Remove all fasteners, such as paper clips, staples, and rubber bands. Remove binders if this can be done easily and without damaging the contents.

Pages previously bound together by a staple or a clip often do not need to be rebound, as they are easily recognizable as being part of the same document. Usually a heading is present identifying the document and the page number. A short document (10 pages or less) without pagination may be marked in the upper right-hand corner, using a soft lead pencil, with the document's date and page number. A lengthy document comprised of many pages can be easily kept together by placing it into a single folder, or folded into a sheet of acid-free paper. If a fastener is necessary to keep several items together, plastic paper clips may be used. These clips, however, should be used sparingly since they are prone to slippage and are bulky.

Deteriorating originals, newspaper clippings, publications, and thermal fax copies should be photocopied onto acid-free paper and should replace the originals in the folder. Originals of items with intrinsic value which have been photocopied to reduce handling should be moved to a restricted folder, while the copy should be kept in the main folder. Originals deemed to have limited value, such as newspaper clippings and thermal faxes, may be discarded after approval is obtained from the Archivist.

Folded documents must be flattened.

Straighten all materials and place them neatly into folders so that corners do not stick out past the edges.

RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN INDIVIDUAL ITEMS MUST BE MAINTAINED. In particular, transmittal letters should be kept with their attachments, and enclosures should be kept with documents and letters. Keep these items together by folding a piece of acid-free paper around the enclosures, or holding all items together with a plastic clip.

Discard envelopes unless they have relevant notes or unusual stamps placed on them, or provide information not included with the enclosed material.

Remove any organic materials found in the files, such as pressed flowers and paper napkins. If these items are thought to be important to the folder, photocopy the items onto acid-free paper, leave the photocopy in the folder, and transfer the organic material to another folder after encasing it in a plastic sleeve, if possible.

Remove encased items from their frames. Review the frame for monetary and/or artistic value and decide on proper disposition and whether to return the frame to the donor or discard.

Folders, covers, and bindings on inferior quality paper should be removed if possible. Any title or identification marks on these covers or folders should be photocopied onto acid-free paper, or noted in pencil on a piece of acid-free paper, and replace the original in the folder.

Place a number of papers in an acid-free folder. The amount will be determined by the subject matter of the papers as well as the physical limitations of the folders. Do not overstuff the folders as this will cause wear and tear. If thick documents are too large for the folder, separate them into subsequent folders and label to indicate their relationship (e.g., 1 of 3 folders, 2 of 3 folders, etc.). Evaluate each situation, in order not to waste folders.

Each file unit, generally an acid-free folder, should contain the following information written in pencil:

Record Group should be listed on the left side of the folder front

Record Title, Series, and, if applicable, Subseries, should be listed vertically under the Record Group

Folder Title should be written on the folder top, left hand side

Dates of the materials should be written on the folder top, right hand side.

All acid-free folders in a box should be the same size. However, legal and letter size documents may occupy the same legal sized folder.

Within a box, arrange folders, as appropriate, in numerical, chronological, or alphabetical order.


Undated Material

Undated material may be handled in several ways:

If you can ascertain the date of the document, from either internal or external evidence, mark the document in pencil in the upper right hand corner with the date in brackets (e.g., [August 21, 1900]). Be careful not to cover any writing. File the document in its appropriate place.

If you can ascertain a certain period of time when the document was probably created, from either internal or external evidence, mark the document in pencil in the upper right-hand corner with the approximate date, preceded by "c." in brackets (e.g., [c. August 1900]. Be careful not to cover any writing. Then place the document in its appropriate place at the beginning of the month or year.

If you cannot ascertain the date of the document, leave it unmarked and place it at the end of the folder of material with which the undated record was associated. Include "n.d." with the folder dates to indicate the presence of undated material in the folder.


Audiovisual Materials

Audiovisual materials should be transferred to their own record group, and arranged into record titles of like formats: film, scrapbooks, audiotapes, photographs, video tapes, postcards, slides, and negatives. Fill out a separation sheet and make a duplicate on acid-free paper. Insert one copy in the original place of the audiovisual item, documenting the item's new location. Maintain one sheet with the transferred items to document the original location and provenance. Reference copies of frequently used materials should be made for researchers to view and copy from. Cotton gloves should be worn when handling audiovisual materials.


Motion Picture Film

Motion picture film is arranged by originating office/body/person or by subject. Film should be stored on reels and placed separately in canisters.


Audio Tapes and Video Tapes

Audio tapes are arranged by originating office/body/person or by subject. Tapes should be housed individually in neutral plastic containers inside properly sized boxes. They should be stored away from stray magnetic fields, which could result in the erasure of the tape. The position of the tapes should be in the played position, and the tapes should only be rewound before the next use. Tapes over five years old should be reviewed for signs of deterioration and copied onto new cassettes if deterioration is detected.


Oral Histories

Oral history interviews are arranged by originating office/body/person or by subject, whether they are audio tapes, video tapes, film, or transcripts. Within each group, oral history interviews should be arranged alphabetically by the name of the interviewee.



Postcards are arranged by the subject headings formulated for photographic materials. They are encased in chemically inert plastic sleeves and housed inside properly sized boxes.


Slides, Negatives, and Photographic Prints

Slides, negatives, and photographic prints are stored separately from each other in chemically inert plastic sleeves or acid-free envelopes. If images are stored in acid-free envelopes, they should be stored with the emulsion side away from the seam side.

Items are arranged by subject in accordance with a predetermined group of subject headings which is identical for all three groups and for the postcards. Items which form a definitive entity may be arranged as a separate record title within a subgroup.

Items which have been removed from a group of mixed records should be identified by a separation sheet.



Artwork may be organized by media (pen and ink drawings, watercolors, sketches, prints, pastel drawings, oil paintings, sculpture, etc.), by subject portrayed (faculty, religious, Blessed Virgin Mary, abstract), or by name of artist. If there is a compelling reason to organize material topically or by artist, then subsequent organization within each collection by media facilitates proper housing, storage, and conservation, and consistent physical description.

If the material is organized by artist, it should be arranged therein alphabetically by title. If the title is not the true title of the artwork as given by the artist, then the attributed title should be placed in brackets.

Oil paintings should stay in frames, preferably under glass (not plexiglass) to protect their surface. Every effort should be made to frame important paintings. Otherwise, they should be stored flat, foldered individually, in boxes. Framed paintings without glass should be wrapped in acid-free tissue paper to protect the surface from dust, other environmental pollutants, and abrasion. Framed works that are too large to be stored on the shelves will be stored in the Art Storage area.

Works of fixed media on paper (e.g., watercolors, prints, some drawings) may be left in their frames if no signs of deterioration are detected, or removed from their frames and stored flat in oversize boxes, inside folders and interleaved with tissue paper.

Works of friable or unfixed media on paper (e.g., charcoal, chalk, or pastels) should be kept framed, under glass (not plexiglass).

Some works on paper should remain framed for aesthetic reasons, or because the frames have artifactual value (e.g., are handmade, vintage, beautiful, or created especially for the work by the artist or owner). Hanging of the art collection in Mount offices is encouraged.

Fragile material in frames should be left framed until appropriate conservation action can be taken.


Framed Materials

For efficient storage, handling, and retrieval, and for preservation reasons, the Archives prefers to remove all photographic materials from frames and discard the frames. Exceptions are made for pieces that will be too large for flat storage, or for fragile items, unless proper storage and conservation treatment can be provided. Fragile items removed from frames may have to be matted or encapsulated.

As stated in the section above, items housed in frames that have artifactual value should not be unframed. However, photographs should usually be unframed, and the frames should be stored separately. Custom-made boxes can be made for odd-sized frames that are retained for artifactual value when they do not fit into standard oversize boxes but will fit on the shelves when boxed.

Aside from these exceptions, discard frames without artifactual interest, and house their former contents appropriately.


Oversized Materials

Oversized materials may be copied to a smaller size if the item was a copy, or a publication without handwritten notes. Other oversized materials should be removed to oversize storage. Oversize is treated as a storage location, not as an intellectual arrangement. To ensure efficient and safe housing of items stored in oversize boxes, the material is foldered and housed according to size, not in series order.

Unless they form only a portion of a folder's contents, oversize items are fully described in the box and folder list where they would be located if they were of a regular size. Fill out a separation sheet and make a copy on acid-free paper, inserting one in the place where the oversized item was removed, and leaving the other separation sheet with the removed item to document its original location and provenance. USE A SOFT LEAD PENCIL TO FILL OUT THE SEPARATION SHEET. Oversized materials are stored in oversized boxes or in the map cases. An inventory of the material in the oversized box should be made and updated as material is added. A copy of the inventory, on regular copier paper, should be kept in the master files of the Archives, and a copy on acid-free paper should remain with the box.



Artifacts will be separated from the collection and will be assigned an identification number consisting of the accession number and a consecutive number. Fill out a separation sheet and make a copy onto acid-free paper, leaving one copy in the artifact's original place to document the item=s new location. One copy remains with the artifact. Stray artifacts are numbered consecutively, preceded by the prefix A. The object's identification number is displayed on a tag tied by cotton string to the artifact. If the format of the artifact does not allow for the fastening of string, label the box with the artifact's number.


Restricted Records

Records may be restricted from public access through a case-by-case arrangement with the department or donor responsible for the transfer of the records to the Archives.

In addition, the Archives currently restricts access to all records which contain personnel and student information for living persons. In general, unprocessed collections are also restricted. The Archivist's approval must be obtained before access to the records can be provided to the public. This restriction does not apply to authorized staff from the originating office. Specific restrictions on personal papers are specified in the Donor Agreement Form.

Restricted records may be interfiled and stored with other, unrestricted records. A file folder containing restricted records must be marked RESTRICTED on the folder top after the folder title, and a red dot sticker must be placed on the box label to alert the staff that the box contains restricted materials. The restricted files must be removed from a box before the box is presented to a researcher. The finding aid should identify a restricted file as such, and should include a description of the restricted records and the reason for the restriction.



Finding Aid

For larger or especially important collections, a comprehensive Finding Aid should be created. The descriptive components of the finding aid will be composed using a word processing application. A folder inventory should list all folders, giving folder titles, dates, and, where appropriate, a brief description of the materials in each folder. The finding aid consists of:

A Biographical Sketch/Administrative History, which is a brief narrative or outline of the principal events in the history of the person or office during the period encompassed by the records, as well as any appropriate background data.

Provenance Statement, which includes information about the origin of the records or about the donor, including date(s) when the materials were accessioned.

Scope and Content Note, a paragraph discussing, in narrative form, the extent and depth, strengths, weaknesses, and gaps of the records. At a minimum, the Scope and Content Note relates the types of material, and inclusive and bulk dates of the materials. In addition, the Scope and Content Note provides information about the arrangement of the records series, and about significant correspondents and subjects.

Processing Note, which discuses the arrangement activities as well as any special preservation treatment performed during processing. Information regarding the removal of items from the collection and their disposition or placement elsewhere is included here.

Series Descriptions gives a more detailed description of record types, subjects, and persons represented in each series. Each series description includes the title of the series, its inclusive dates, volume, and arrangement.

A Box/Folder Inventory providing information on each folder title, inclusive dates, and, where appropriate, folder content.

Processed Record Box Labels

Labels for the processed record boxes should contain the following information:

Record Group number and name

Record Title

Box number.


Additional Processing Manuals & Resources:

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