Processing Guidelines: Chapter 1, Processing Workflow at the Archives of American Art

Chapter Contents:


Archival processing is defined as the activities of accessioning, arranging, describing, and properly storing archival materials according to established national standards and best practices. This chapter provides an overview of the archival processing workflow at the Archives of American Art and is intended to be consulted and further referenced with other documents in the manual. Collection accessioning is addressed in separate documentation drafted by the Archives’ Registrar.

Acronyms and the Archives-specific references used throughout this document include the following:

Staff CIS — Archives of American Art’s in-house collections management database for managing digital files, digitization workflows, EAD finding aids, collection assessments, and accession forms.

SOVA — Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives is an online web portal to EAD finding aids contributed by all Smithsonian archival units. Digital content is also available contextually via the finding aids. The Archives contributes all EAD finding aids to SOVA.

ArchivesSpace — the EAD Authoring Tool/System implemented by SI OCIO in 2017 as a replacement for Archivists’ Toolkit. Includes all catalog records for collections and oral histories. Single-level catalog records were migrated from a MARC cataloging system to ArchivesSpace in 2020.

Workflow Steps

1. Collection Assigned

Your supervisor will most likely assign your collection, or you may be provided with a list of collections to work through. Before starting any processing work or pulling a collection, send an email to the Head of Reference Services to inquire whether there are researchers scheduled to use the collection. If researchers are scheduled in the near future, you will need to select another collection.

2. Start Tracking Processing Hours

Begin tracking hours spent on the following processing tasks: 

a) survey and proposal

b) arrangement and preservation

c) finding aid and encoding

d) processing activities associated with digitization (full processing only)

The method of tracking hours is up to the archivist (notebook log, outlook calendar, spreadsheet, etc.). The total hours spent on the collection will be used to calculate and record the average number of processing hours per linear foot and added to the AAAReports Processing Job.

3. Review Collection Documentation

Review collection-level ArchivesSpace resource record and conduct a thorough search on the main creator’s name. The record may indicate multiple accessions and/or list microfilm reel numbers (sometimes multiple sets of microfilm) for gifts and loans. Many collections have complex provenances and may include both donated materials and materials loaned to the Archives for microfilming and then returned to the donor.  Consult with your supervisor for assistance if you need help sorting out the provenance. Review all ArchivesSpace resource records that include the creator’s name as either a creator or in the collection title. If you find multiple individually cataloged collections that have the same creator, share the same or similar provenance, and were accessioned many years ago, consult with your supervisor. These collections should be evaluated to determine whether they should be merged with the collection you are processing. 

Review the Accession File either in paper form or the .pdf version in the Staff CIS. If you do not see a deed for each accession, STOP and consult with your supervisor. Many collections were acquired in multiple accessions, so you will likely see multiple deeds in the file that should correspond to multiple accession dates in the catalog record. Review the file for any descriptive or arrangement information found within, including preliminary box inventories, microfilm inventories, and biographical information about the creator. You should consult these when writing the finding aid’s biographical or historical note and scope and contents note. If the descriptive information is accurate, re-purpose it! This information is also useful for determining the original order of the collection.

Review the accession record in the Staff CIS, if available. In the Staff CIS click on the “Edit” option for accessions. This will provide access to a drop-down menu of all database accession records. Older collections will not have an accession records in the Staff CIS. If the collection consists of multiple recent accessions, there will be a record for each accession. Review all accession forms for the collection, noting whether additions are expected, restriction notes, descriptions and summaries of content created by the collector.

Review the collection assessment record in the Staff CIS. Review the overall Needs Assessment Rating (NAR) and the Research Value Rating (RVR) in the record. If no Research Value Rating exists, enter a rating now or after you have completed processing. If the collection does not have an assessment survey record in the Staff CIS, create a new assessment record. 

Review existing documentation about microfilm of gifted and loaned material. These are generally noted in the catalog record and in the accession file. Some materials loaned to the Archives for microfilming were returned to the donor after microfilming but might have been included in later gifts. Often it is not clear what only exists on microfilm and what, if any, loaned materials were included in later donations. Although you are not required to review the loan or gift microfilm nor describe it in detail in the finding aid, try to get an understanding of how the microfilm relates to the collection which you are processing. It may be helpful to quickly review microfilm of loaned materials to determine if they were included in later gifts and are now found within the papers you are processing. 

If there is microfilm of the collection you are processing, it may or may not represent the entire collection. After processing, the microfilmed arrangement of the full or partial collection most likely will not match the new arrangement of the papers.

Review preliminary inventories, which may include legacy finding aids, box inventories, folder lists, and microfilm inventories. Existing inventories may contain useful information on original order and inform arrangement and description decisions.

Take note of any oral history interviews with the creator, or that are primarily about the creator. A quick review of the transcript may provide biographical and contextual information.

4. Conduct Research About the Creator/Subject

In addition to the research completed while reviewing all collection documentation, conduct preliminary background research about the creator and/or subject of the collection. Searching the Archives’ website and Google are a good way to start. A search on the Archives’ website will allow you to make connections with other collections, subjects, and names that will help inform what should be highlighted in the finding aid. Additional resources are available at the American Art and Portrait Gallery Library and SIL’s online databases.

5. Locate and Pull All Containers

Using the collection location information in ArchivesSpace, locate and pull all the containers. In addition to the cubic foot boxes, there may be manuscript boxes, flat boxes, oversize folders, bound volumes, and rolled documents stored in other locations. Notify your supervisor if you are unable to locate any containers.

Update the ArchivesSpace resource record indicating that the collection is now closed to researchers:

Conditions Governing Access note:  Delete the statement and add a "closed" statement indicating that it is closed for processing or processing and digitization.

Example 1: This collection is temporarily closed to researchers due to archival processing. Contact Reference Services for more information.

Example 2: This collection is temporarily closed to researchers due to archival processing and digitization. Contact Reference Services for more information. 

Add temporary locations in ArchivesSpace: For each Top Container record, click on “Add Location” and in the Location field, start typing your office number. There should be a “processing” location available for your office. Optionally, you can also add your name in the Note field. For a large collection, you can contact the Registrar to complete a bulk update of locations, reassigning the containers to your office.

Send an email to all staff informing them that you have pulled and closed the collection for processing/digitization. In the email, include the former box locations so that the Registrar can either save the space or re-allocate it.

6. Create a Processing Job in the Staff CIS

Create a new processing job in the Reports module of the Staff CIS. In the Reports module, click on the Finding Aids tab to access the link to View/Add/Edit processing jobs. When you add a processing job, select the collection from the drop-down menu, enter your name, the date the assignment started, the extent of the collection before processing. 

7. Physically Survey the Collection

Conduct a box-by-box physical survey and analysis of the collection. Take the time to become familiar with the scope, content, arrangement, and potential research value/strengths of the entire collection. Time spent on the survey phase is worth the effort as it will help determine a preliminary logical archival arrangement. However, the survey is not conducted at the item level.

You may find it helpful to create a written outline with additional notes on the contents of each box. These are your notes and not permanent.

Identify and evaluate the existing arrangement and any obvious naturally occurring series/subseries and/or logical groupings. Think about how the collection could be organized and arranged into likely series, subseries, etc., particularly in relation to the types of materials or series found typically within the Archives collections. Also think about whether the original order is good, logical, easy to use, or not. Personal papers sometimes have an illogical original order. Be aware that the “original order” you are seeing now may not be the actual original order because the collection may have been “preliminarily processed” by the Archives staff, donors, or family members. Again, the accession file and preliminary inventory (if one exists) may provide clues about the existing arrangement.

Identify the various types of materials/formats/genres found and their extent and bulk dates.  Note important names and subjects, functions of the creating body and think about how the documents within the collection support those functions and/or the creator’s life work.

Briefly evaluate the physical condition of the collection, making note to discuss problem materials or special formats with your supervisor.

If the survey identified a significant amount of materials that should be weeded (duplicates, canceled checks, check stubs, tax forms, publications, etc.), make note of this on the processing proposal. If the extent to be weeded or deaccessioned is large, discuss with your supervisor. A disposition notice may be required after processing.

If the processing survey reveals audiovisual materials, review the audiovisual assessment record in the Audiovisual Survey Database and assess the AV content within collection. Data on AV content might include logical groupings of media found within each collection, transcriptions of labels, brief descriptions, dates, quantity, format information, condition and housing issues, and intellectual access issues. This data may help you process the AV portion of the collection. The AV Archivist can also offer help using the AV Access database and is also available for general consult about AV materials, including identification, organization, and description.

For help assessing the AV portion of your collection, you can follow the AV Assessment guidelines, which outline aspects of AV material that will determine the processing work required. These include 1) the need for re-housing, 2) the quality of media labels and documentation which determines how much media needs to be played to create an effective description, and 3) the complexity of the AV material and the quality of the existing arrangement, which determines how much analysis is needed to carry out the arrangement. 

For example, can you identify the items and how they might be arranged without actually playing them? Are there possible duplicates? Are the items housed appropriately? Is the media in physically good condition, or is it dirty, de-spooled, or deteriorated?  (Signs of deterioration include odor, warping or other signs of physical deformation, exuding of crystalline or other residue/s.) 

If the processing survey readily reveals PII (Personally Identifiable Information) or other privacy concerns, please indicate this on the processing proposal and discuss with your supervisor. The material may simply be weeded from the collection or returned to the donor if it has limited research value or redacted once processing begins. See the section on “Weeding, Deaccessioning, and Redacting” in Chapter 5.

Determine if the collection contains born-digital materials. Make note of the format types, descriptive labels, extent, and current arrangement. Physical format types may include electronic discs (CD), electronic discs (DVD), floppy discs, data cartridges, hard drives, and memory cards.

Determine whether the born digital media has been logged and transferred to the Archives' network storage. Please contact the digital asset manager to determine if the material in your collection has been logged and transferred or if you have question about digital formats found in the collection. For collections that include media that has not been logged, please fill out a media log spreadsheet template. For each individual piece of media found in a collection, the log documents the collection title, type of media, metadata written on the item, and box and folder location. Send the log to the digital asset manager. At the same time, create a digital media flag and place it in the folder where the media is located. This allows for the person doing the ingest of the items to easily locate the media items in the collection.

8. Complete and Submit Processing Proposal

Complete the Processing Proposal form by filling in the blanks and checking off appropriate types of materials/possible series and extent, based on your survey notes. The form asks for information about size, acquisition, previous microfilming actions, physical condition and/or preservation issues, types of materials found, AV and digital formats, level of proposed processing, and estimated hours and schedule for processing. The most current version of the processing proposal is included as an appendix to this processing manual.

On the Processing Proposal, note any preservation or conservation issues, including the possibility of using more than the usual amount of typical preservation supplies (folders, special containers, interleaving paper, etc.) Also reference those concerns in the email to your supervisor.

Select the level of processing from 1-4. (See Chapter 2: Processing Levles for more detailed information). Based on the proposed level of processing, estimate the approximate number of hours per linear foot and provide a proposed schedule in weeks or months. The time frame should reflect time scheduled for meetings, breaks, other assignments and duties, annual and sick leave, holidays, etc.

Attach an outline of your proposed archival arrangement of series and subseries.  Arrangement is the most important and most difficult processing task. The formats printed on the proposal form represent the most typical series/subseries/components found within the Archives collections and can be used to inform many of your arrangement decisions. Additional information is included in Chapter 3: Intellectual Arrangement. Consult with your supervisor about series/subseries arrangement and/or titling options for materials that appear to fall into or cross over categories not clearly defined in the Archives’ guidelines.

Write down any questions or concerns you have and attach to the proposal, or include them in an email to your supervisor when you submit your Processing Proposal. The Processing Proposal does not become part of the collection file.

Complete the proposal and email it to your supervisor. Your supervisor will review your Processing Proposal, discuss any issues with you, and approve the proposal and arrangement plan. The approval process should take no longer than 1-2 days. You can begin basic sorting before the proposal is approved. If the collection contains AV material, send the proposal to the AV Archivist. The AV Archivist can provide additional information regarding AV extent, condition, or format.

It is likely that your original proposed arrangement will change as you process the collection, particularly for larger collections. This is normal. Significant changes should be brought to your supervisor’s attention in writing and approved.

9. Arrange and Preserve Collection to Approved Level

Once your processing proposal is approved, arrange and preserve the collection following the Archives’ processing manual. Guidelines on tasks for each processing level can be found in Chapter 2; guidelines for intellectual arrangement are found in Chapter 3; and guidelines for preservation are found in Chapter 5. Consult with your supervisor if you have any questions about these task.

10. Describe the Collection in an EAD Finding Aid

All collections processed to a level 2, 3, or 4 will be described in an EAD formatted finding aid. Per DACS rules, the level of detail in a finding aid should correlate directly to the level of processing completed for collection. The processing archivist is responsible for encoding his/her own finding aid using ArchivesSpace according to the Archives’ written encoding guidelines and SI EAD Best Practices. The Archives also has specific guidelines for creating and encoding EAD finding aids with AV and born digital content.

After the description is completed, assign controlled access terms for names and subjects.

11. Upload and Review Finding Aid

Do a final review of your finding aid using the PDF version available in ArchivesSpace. Please remember to proofread your finding aids prior to submitting for review. Your supervisor is not your proofreader.

After completing the finding aid, upload the XML file to the Staff CIS via the EAD Finding Aids Workflow. 

Notify your supervisor via email that the finding aid is ready for review and approval. Your supervisor may make simple changes and edits to the finding aid directly in ASpace. If substantial changes to the description or arrangement are needed, they will notify you to complete the work and resubmit the finding aid for review.      

12. Update All Collection Documentation

Update the collection assessment record in the Staff CIS. Detailed instructions on updating survey elements can be found in Appendix A, Instructions for Completing a Collection Assessment.

Calculate the total hours and average number of processing hours per linear foot.

Finalize your Processing Job in the Staff CIS with final extent, average processing hours per linear foot, etc.

Change the Processing Status to “Processed” in the ASpace Resource record Collection Management section.

13. Select a Representative Image for the Collection

Each processed collection, including those being fully digitized should have one “representative image” selected by the processing archivist to be featured with the collection on the Archives' website. If possible, the representative image should be a photograph of or piece of writing by the creator of the collection. If the collection already has a digitized representative image, no additional images need to be digitized.

As of 2022, the workflow has changed to focus on digitizing an entire folder selected by the archivist, so that the Digitization Team can use existing Digitization-on-Demand workflows. Workflow steps for digitizing a representative image are below:

  • Select a folder with item to be used a representative image. Verify that no publication or access restrictions apply to the document.
  • Go to to register for a researcher/user account (do not use you SI network password)
  • If the finding aid is not yet published online, go to the collection's overview page and click on "Make a Reproduction Request"
  • In the notes field, list the box/folder/folder title where the image can be found. (Make sure this is the final, processed box/folder location)
  • Email the Digital Initiatives Archivist to let them know which image in the folder is intended to be the representative image
  • The Digital Initiatives Archivist will pull the folder from the box when it is scheduled for digitization
  • The folder will proceed through the DOD process. You may get an email that your Aeon user account has been added to this activity – no action is required on your part
  • The Digital Initiatives Archivist will create an item record in the CIS, attach image(s), and ingest into the DAMS
  • You will receive an email from the Aeon system when the image is ready to be attached to the collection record (instructions on this will be provided in the email)

14. Notify Registrar

Delete obsolete top containers and “holdings” entries in ArchivesSpace. Notify Registrar via email that the collection is ready for barcoding and shelving. Include a list of container types and counts.

15. Final Review and Website Deploy

After final approval of the finding aid, including review of the digital images and DAO tagging for digitized collections, the Head of Collections Processing will re-upload the xml file to the Staff CIS and mark the collection status as “Publish” in ArchivesSpace. The finding aid will automatically deploy to SOVA and AAA’s website.