How to Accession

There are two different approaches to accessioning: standard and optimal. With each approach, accessioning is considered the first opportunity for an archivist to gain basic physical and intellectual control over the materials.

  • Standard (required): considered the bare minimum of what is necessary for good stewardship of material

  • Optimal: accessioning as processing, some basic processing activities are undertaken at time of accessioning, collections meet minimum requirements for Level I processing, discoverable and open for research


Standard accessioning in practice


Description -- Internal or publically accessible accession record (at least DACS Single-level Required elements)


Physical and intellectual arrangement -- none, left as is


Physical control -- box labels applied, temporary storage location assigned and tracked


Preservation -- rebox if unservable as is


Appraisal -- none, for collections with privacy concerns throughout, restrict entire collection and review for use on demand


The following are examples of MARC records generated by repurposing standard accession record information: Irene Mikus photographs and ephemera, Eily Beadell papers, Vera Allen papers, Harvard Medical School Stork Club records.


Optimal accessioning in practice


Description -- Internal or publically accessible accession record, MARC record and/or an online finding aid (at least DACS Single-level Required elements), possibly with Series/Sub-series description or a brief box listing


Physical and intellectual arrangement -- put series and/or boxes into rough order


Physical control -- box labels and barcodes applied, permanent location assigned and tracked


Preservation -- rebox if unservable as is. House loose items. Replace folders, binders, or envelopes only if unserviceable.


Appraisal -- appraise series, sub-series or other large discernible chunks of material, avoid finer weeding. If privacy concerns exist throughout an entire series, restrict series and review for use on demand.


Examples: Jonathan Bayliss Papers, Lesser Samuels Papers, Jerry Schatzberg Papers


A note about control files

Most repositories keep some sort of physical (or digital) file for each collection. Control files typically contain gift or acquisition agreements, relevant correspondence with donors or dealers, preliminary file lists or other descriptions, collection summaries, authority work documentation, and preliminary research materials. No matter where or how these files are kept, it’s important that they are kept and kept in a place that is accessible to all staff. Control files are a central unit for documentation regarding a collection and often the first place to start research when processing.


A note about born-digital materials

Archival principles apply equally to records of all formats, however, the nature of the carrier requires different workflows for digital material. It is imperative given the fragility of electronic media (the “carrier”) to properly accession born-digital materials in a separate track from analog materials (this means accessioning the files on the carriers not just the carriers). Even when operating under full capacity to process born digital materials, there are some basic measures that every repository can take to better ensure the long term preservation and accessibility of its materials.


The Digital Forensics Working Group of Harvard Library is working on recommendations for archival treatment of born digital content.  A link to their work is here: