Course:2: Acquiring Your Collections
Lesson:Lesson 5: Accessioning--What Do You Have and Where Is It?
Topic:Making Sense of the Collection

Making Sense of the Records

Records that you acquire will vary widely in their size and intellectual content. Sometimes you will acquire a single volume; another time you may bring in many boxes of materials. Some records may be additions to existing collections, while others may be new collections.  At this stage, you need to have a general understanding of what records you have acquired, how much material there is, and how to manage it until it can be processed and made part of your collections.

Should You Divide the Records into Groups?

Your first task is to make a high level evaluation of the best way to manage the records during the accessioning process. The goal of accessioning is to know what you have, where it is, and how much of it there is.  With small acquisitions – a single volume, a couple of boxes of records – there is no need to consider doing any preliminary organization of the records. You can answer the “what,” “where,” and “how much” questions without much trouble.

But if you have brought in a large group of records – twenty, thirty boxes or more – you may be able to break down the contents of the boxes into smaller units in order to help you answer the “what,” where,” and “how much” questions. Breaking down the records is done by identifying distinct record series.  A record series is a group of records that logically belong together, are filed and maintained together, and that serve the same function.

Dividing acquisitions into series helps the archivist (and the user) understand the intellectual content of the records. Since it may be some time before the records that are being accessioned will be processed and made ready for researchers, it’s important to make sure that your accessions are done well. It will be much easier to understand and manage records described as and consisting of "Minute Books, 1900 -1975" than to understand "Green Valley Environmental Association, Miscellaneous Records, 1900 -1975."

Begin by looking at the records. Are there obvious types of records that make a logical group, such as set of minute books, a group of photographs depicting related events or people, or financial records? These items form record series -- groups of related records that make logical sense, are filed and maintained together, and that serve the same function.

For example, you have acquired the personal papers of John Smith, a prominent local scholar. There are 50 boxes of material. When you look at the materials, you find that the papers mostly consist of 1) financial records, 2) personal diaries, 3) family scrapbooks and photographs, and 4) academic papers and writings.  Each of these four groups of records can be easily identified as a record series. The boxes are well labeled, making it simple for you to place the correct records in their corresponding series.

When To Divide Up the Records

 Divide the records if:

  • The records are well organized, labeled and filed
  • The series are easy to identify
  • You can do the job quickly

Do NOT divide up records if

  • The record series are not easy to identify, or
  • If you have to do refiling and reorganizing to accomplish the task

In these cases, it is better to leave the records as they are and come back to the identification of record series later – when you are arranging and describing the collection.

If you have divided the acquisition into record series, you should physically segregate the series so they can be described and stored as separate accessions. The term “accession” refers to a group of records that have been identified as a single unit to be managed and stored together.  Now, let’s look at the accessioning process.

Large block (ABC Collection) divided into four parts

Sometimes dividing your acquisitions into groups will make them easier to understand and manage.

 Two women with records
Physically segegrate your record groups.


A record series is a group of records that logically belong together, are filed and maintained together, and that serve the same function.

When we use the word "collection" or "accession," we are referring specifically to these record groups that you have identified during accessioning.