What is accessioning?


In the archival sense, accessioning is the act of taking physical and legal custody of a group of records or other material and documenting that receipt. Legal custody is documented through a deed of gift or an acquisitions agreement (or any other nomenclature used for these documents).


The materials may be acquired by gift, bequest, purchase, transfer, retention schedule, or statute. An accession may be part of a larger, existing collection. An accession added to an existing collection is sometimes called an accretion or an accrual.

Why is accessioning important?


Accessioning forms part of the legal and ethical obligations of a repository when they take in material. By documenting receipt of legal agreements and accounting for contents, accessioning helps to authenticate the provenance of the records by accounting for chain of custody as well as address any transfer of physical or intellectual property.


Accessioning represents an opportunity for the repository to gain basic physical and intellectual control of material, and in this way, accessioning forms the basis of any good collections management apparatus.

What do we mean by legal custody and intellectual and physical control?


Legal Custody

It is important to establish and document the ownership of any archival material that comes to a repository, whether through purchase, gift, deposit, or transfer. This includes physical rights, who owns the actual material, as well as intellectual property rights, who owns the content of the material. These types of concerns are generally outlined in a deed of gift or an acquisition agreement. This documentation helps to track the chain of custody, provide verification of authenticity, and formally document a repository’s intent to acquire for academic purposes.


Intellectual Control

A repository should document every collection or addition to a collection that comes in the door by creating an accession record. This record can serve a number of functions at once:

  • it ensures that legal and physical transfer of materials is complete;

  • it forms the basis of a collection management system (a place where staff can see what they have, what they took in and when, where it’s located, what size, condition, restrictions, etc.);

  • it can function as the first iteration of a publically accessible description for the collection.


An accession record is the foundation for later archival description. Accession records are kept in a variety of systems at Harvard Library, including: Aleph, ArchivesSpace, Excel, Access, and even analog systems like cards and accession books. Independent of where and how the accession records are kept, it’s critical that the record be standards-compliant and easily exchanged or interoperable with a system for discovery and access. DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard) provides a set of required data elements for a single-level description, of which an accession record is one.

  • Reference Code Element (2.1)

  • Name and Location of Repository Element (2.2)

  • Title Element (2.3)

  • Date Element (2.4)

  • Extent Element (2.5)

  • Name of Creator(s) Element (2.6) (if known)

  • Scope and Content Element (3.1)

  • Conditions Governing Access Element (4.1)

  • Languages and Scripts of the Material Element (4.5)


Physical Control

It is important to understand when receiving material into a repository for the first time the extent and condition of that material. Did what arrived at the repository match what was expected? Is anything missing? Are there major preservation concerns? Physical control can be as granular as you need, whether just checking the accession as a whole or checking boxes, folders, and the contents within. Another part of gaining physical control of material is making sure it can be found later. This process might consist of simply labeling boxes and tracking a temporary shelving location or it might be fairly extensive where materials are rehoused into archival boxes and folders, labeled, barcoded, and shelved in a permanent location.


If archives staff perform some basic processing activities while accessioning, the material can be easily used in the reading room almost immediately. The material should be physically stable enough to remain intact for off-site transfer; the contents should fit snugly enough to avoid bouncing or sliding out of its enclosure while not being overstuffed.


Labels should clearly display the accession number (or another identifier like call number), box number, and title. Labels can be printed, or can be clearly written with marker on the outside of the box. Label templates can be useful to keep the language consistent when several staff members are working to bring in accessions.


By rehousing, labeling, and preparing the boxes for use at the point of accession, there is less confusion about the accession. It is easier to find for processing and public services staff and clearly defined for citation by users.