Processing Guidelines: Chapter 2, Processing Levels at the Archives of American Art

Chapter Contents:


A nation-wide Heritage Health Index Survey of our nation’s cultural institutions was completed in 2005.  It revealed that this country’s libraries, archives, and museums hold millions, if not billions, of items and collections that have never been adequately described and preserved, representing a staggering volume of items and collections of potentially substantive intellectual value that are hidden from users. The Archives of American Art, along with most Smithsonian collecting units participated in this survey and our individual results mirror those across the country.

The Archives of American Art has been proactive in addressing the problem of its own backlog of hidden and unprocessed collections. In 2007, we completed a comprehensive assessment of nearly all of our backlog with internal Collections Care Pool Fund support and continue to assess each new acquisition. This ongoing effort allows us to precisely identify which collections are physically at-risk due to condition, format, and preservation housing needs. The assessment methodology also allows us to rate each collection’s level of physical access (archival arrangement) and intellectual access. Assessment data is maintained in our robust in-house database (the Archives' Staff CIS) which is capable of producing a wide variety of reports about the overall processing and preservation needs of our collections, both collectively and individually.

Backlogs can also be traced to traditional archival processing methodologies that have focused almost exclusively on extremely detailed full level archival processing activities, resulting in only a handful of collections being processed each year. This level of overly detailed work, combined with ever-increasing acquisitions of larger contemporary collections, has led to a national crisis of ever-growing unprocessed and unpreserved backlogs of primary source documentation. 

The Archives needs to make the most efficient use of its dwindling resources while still maintaining a strong commitment to collections stewardship. Therefore, we have joined many other national repositories who have implemented “more product, less process” (MPLP) strategies to accomplish our goal to make ALL of our collections more accessible, rather than a select few. Some collections, such as those that will be fully digitized or are associated with specific grant projects, will continue to receive the highest level of detailed processing. We will, however, employ accelerated processing tactics and strategies for processing the bulk of our existing backlog of unprocessed or under-processed collections, and all new acquisitions.

Level 1: Accession-Level (Preliminary) Processing

Preliminary Processing is completed upon accessioning. At this level, the work focuses on establishing the preliminary physical and intellectual control of the collection and documenting the legal status of the collection. This work is completed by the Archives' collecting specialists and registrar.   


  • The collecting specialist creates an accession record in the Staff CIS. The types and formats of materials, extent, dates, subjects, and research value rating are outlined in the accession record. He/she makes note of any audiovisual materials and born-digital materials, which, in turn, sends a notification to the Audiovisual (AV) archivist and digital asset manager. 
  • The registrar creates an ArchivesSpace resource record based on the information in the accession record. If the collection is an addition, then the existing record is enhanced and updated.
  • The ArchivesSpace resource record is auto-ingested into the CIS, creating an AAA collection record. A unique collection code is assigned to the collection.   
  • The collection is re-housed into archival containers and any loose materials/documents should be foldered and minimally identified.
  • It is preferred that the collecting specialist or registrar minimally organize the contents of the collection into broad logical archival groupings, such as pulling all the correspondence, or all the writings, together. These groupings are not labeled as “series” at this level and materials need not be arranged further. As noted above, special format materials should be identified, and the appropriate archivist notified.
  • While not required, the collecting specialist or other staff may create a preliminary box inventory to be used by the archivist later assigned to process the collection and the reference staff who will need to assist researchers. The inventory should identify the primary types of materials in each box. 
  • The AV archivist conducts a survey of any audiovisual material in the collection to assess its needs and enable any necessary critical intervention. Data is gathered to track the condition of the media and its housing, format, intellectual content and dates as known from existing labels, and assessments of its likely rights status and uniqueness of the content. If housing of audiovisual material is found to be broken, deteriorating, unsupportive, or non-existent, the AV Archivist will re-house it at the time of the survey. If motion picture film is found in the collection, it will be inspected, documented in the film inspection database, cored, re-canned, leadered, AD tested, and its container barcoded so that it may be stored in separate cold storage. Film re-housing will take place as soon as possible following the survey. A large film series may receive only minimal intervention upon accession, depending on its condition, to be fully inspected and re-housed later.
  • A collection survey assessment is conducted by the archivist assigned to the new acquisition. If born-digital content is located during the survey, it is logged and transferred according to workflows established by the digital asset manager.

Level 2: Minimal-Level (Accelerated) Processing

5-7 hours per linear foot

Level 2 “Accelerated Processing” is the default level of processing for all unprocessed collections that are not scheduled for digitization, unless otherwise directed by your supervisor.

Minimal-level processing at the Archives results in a DACS Multilevel description. Thus, the arrangement of the collection and the resulting finding aid will establish and reflect a hierarchical relationship of the materials within the collection, and outline all component units (series, subseries, file).

While there is no set of tactics that will work for each unique archival collection, there is a toolkit of accelerated processing tactics that can be used for most collections. Most importantly, the processing archivist must embrace the notion that “good enough” may indeed be good enough and that the Archives’ first and foremost mission is to make as many collections available to researchers as possible. In other words, it is preferable to meet a minimum standard for ALL collections, rather than exceed standards for a small percentage of collections. Consult with your supervisor about which accelerated processing tactics may or may not be appropriate for the assigned collection. Each collection is unique. For example, there may be some series within the collection that need to be more fully processed than others in order to provide searchable access points within the finding aid.

Arrangement Tasks:

  • Always merge existing multiple accessions into a logical archival arrangement. If the collection was previously microfilmed in multiple sets, do not arrange the collection according to the film arrangement. 
  • Sort the collection into series, usually according to type of material or by original order. Follow the Archives' guidelines on intellectual arrangement for series titles and series order. Do not create “catch all” series that are not indicated by the type of material, unless the collection is under 1 linear foot, in which case all folders can be arranged within one series.
  • Avoid establishing small and unnecessary folder groupings or sub-subseries unless essential to understanding the content or context of the collection or the collection is very large and/or complex. However, the archivist should not destroy detailed file groupings when those groupings or folder headings reflect the original order. In other words, it is not good practice to “lose” metadata or access points found within the original folder headings by re-arranging into more general groupings. Outline any proposed subseries or folder groupings in your processing proposal and discuss with your supervisor.
  • Folders within series should be arranged in either rough chronological order or alphabetized, depending upon the series type and original order. Correspondence may be kept in chronological order, if that is the original order. However, it may need more careful review to establish name and subject access points. If correspondence arrives unsorted, an alphabetical arrangement is preferred.
  • Verify folder content against existing folder titles; do not review contents of each folder at an item-level unless you suspect that the original folder title is incorrect or if an original folder title does not exist. Folder titles may still need to be tweaked or modified slightly from the original titles to either accurately reflect the contents of the folders and/or to make sense to researchers. But, do not change the folder titles or the folder arrangement in such a way that eliminates existing descriptive data.
  • Do not chronologize, alphabetize, or further arrange items within folders.
  • Use circa dates of folder contents for folder unit title if it saves time.
  • If you suspect a folder contains Personally Identifiable Information, notify your supervisor. Redacting Personally Identifiable Information may be required even when processing at this level. After confirming with your supervisor, redact the information by photocopy the document, mark out the personal information on the photocopy, and replace the original with the photocopy. The originals are removed and stored in a separate folder or box that will be closed to researchers. See the section on “Weeding, Deaccessioning, and Redacting” in Chapter 5.

Preservation Tasks:

  • Re-house the collection into archival containers, if needed. If existing boxes are archival, re-use with new labels placed over old labels.
  • Re-folder all content into acid-free folders. If original folders were overstuffed, place documents into multiple archival folders. Folded oversize documents do not need to be unfolded.
  • Do not weed duplicates unless easily identified and/or located.
  • Items must still be removed from envelopes.
  • Do not remove staples and paper clips, unless the fastener is causing the paper to tear.
  • Do not interleave unless critical or unless an item is easily identified as particularly rare or fragile. Do not wrap or sleeve items unless the item is falling apart. You may notify your supervisor of interleaving or preservation work that could be completed by an archives aide or intern.
  • Do not write the collection title on the folder.
  • Physically number the folders in each box.

Description Tasks:

  • Write an EAD Finding Aid, following the Archives' guidelines and procedures. Include all of the required finding aid notes, but generally keep narrative text and added notes brief. Remember that the first rule of archival work is that the level of descriptive detail should match the level of processing. 
  • Limit biographical/historical notes to no more than a few short paragraphs. Do not include chronologies.
  • Write a brief collection level scope note that reference each series and the most significant materials within the collection. Only include information that is essential to understanding the contents of the collection. For many collections, the finding aid abstract note can also serve as the entire scope and content note.  
  • Keep series descriptions to a few sentences in length; subseries descriptions are rarely needed.
  • Arrangement notes at the series level are optional, unless the series includes subseries.
  • Include folder numbers in the finding aid. It is acceptable to have a set of folders with the same title, rather than listing each physical folder individually. 
  • Add details about accelerated processing tactics in the finding aid’s Processing Note only if your supervisor directs you to do so.

Audiovisual Material Tasks:

  • Do not play media to identify content. If AV material is unlabeled and has no accompanying documentation, it can be described as “unidentified” sound recording, video recording, or motion picture film at this level. If motion picture film has been removed for cold storage, consult the film inspection database for information to include in your description.
  • Group AV materials with other related recordings or related non-AV material wherever possible and describe in the aggregate. If physical media is labeled in detail, it is not necessary to include all detail in the finding aid. If documentation of AV content exists in the collection, refer researchers to existing documentation rather than describing in detail in the finding aid.
  • Re-house audiovisual material with poor quality housing.
  • EAD/AV description guidelines must still be followed for all elements identified as “MINIMAL” in the Archives' guidelines for describing AV in EAD. Among these required elements are a collection-level “Conditions Governing Access” note, series-level scope and content notes that include description of media content, and component-level “Physical Description” notes, noting count and specific formats found.

Level 3: Intermediate-Level Processing

10-15 hours per linear foot

Intermediate-level processing at the Archives is defined in DACS as a Multilevel Optimum and Multilevel Added Value description. This level may be defined as optimum/complete processing for most  collections, except for those collections being processed for full digitization. Level 3 processing may also represent an intermediate approach for collections that are highly complex and may also be applied to selected series within collections that are being processed at an overall level 2. For example, perhaps you would process the correspondence series and interviews series to a level 3, but the biographical materials series to a level 2. 

Processing Tasks:

  • Sort and arrange the collection into series, subseries, intellectual folder groupings (if needed), and file units.
  • Fully identify and verify the contents and inclusive dates of each folder, regardless of original folder title.
  • Arrange folders within each series/subseries in logical order if none exists, such as chronological or alphabetical. Retitle original folder headings if needed for clarity. At this level, it’s acceptable to arrange the materials into somewhat broader groupings, and use the finding aid to provide more detail.
  • Write the collection title, series title, folder title, inclusive dates, and folder number on each folder. 
  • Most often, each individual folder will also have an individual title entry in the finding aid.  Avoid large sets of folders listed under one title entry.
  • Re-house all collection contents into archival acid-free containers and folders, and take a sensible approach to preservation actions. Address only the most critical or fragile items. Remove metal paperclips, but do not remove all staples just for the sake of removing staples; perhaps removing only those that are visibly rusty. Not all printed materials need to be unfolded and stored in OV folders, particularly newspapers, oversized magazines, etc.  Not all clippings or acidic materials need to be photocopied or interleaved, unless they are damaging surrounding items, etc. However, original photographic prints and artwork should be fully interleaved with the appropriate archival papers.
  • Write and encode an EAD Finding Aid, following the Archives' written guidelines and procedures. Include all of the Archives' required finding aid elements, including administrative information, and a fairly detailed biographical/historical note and scope and content note.
  • Craft series descriptions that are fully descriptive, yet not redundant of the scope and content note.  Detailed subseries descriptions may not be needed.
  • Include arrangement notes at the series level.

Audiovisual Material Tasks:

  • Re-house any AV items found in substandard housing.  
  • Consult with the AV archivist if you wish to play audiovisual material to help with processing.
  • Description of groupings of media is still encouraged at this level, either as a group of related media, or as part of a mixed-media component. Or, if item-level metadata is a significant access point, a simple item-level component list can be created, e.g. a list of interview subjects.
  • Whether describing groups or items, assign unit titles that clearly identify the content of recordings, whether by work, genre, subject, location, project, or whatever heading best describes the component.

Level 4: Full-Level Processing

15-20 hours per linear foot

Full-Level Processing is defined in DACS as a Multilevel Optimum and Multilevel Added Value description. At the Archives, collections that are scheduled for full digitization are processed at this level. Your supervisor will inform you which collections need to be processed to a level 4. 

Processing Tasks:

  • Fully organize and arrange the collection at the series, subseries, folder, and item level. 
  • Arrange and describe folders within series and subseries in such a way that will allow the most descriptive file titles and provide the most access/search terms within the finding aid. For example, arrange correspondence files in alphabetical order by surnames or corporate name for enhanced access. Avoid any type of arrangement that might require an index to provide access terms.  For example, if the finding aid needs an index of names for a particular series, change the arrangement of the series to provide that level of access through the file titles, or folder scope notes.
  • Each individual folder will also have an individual title entry in the finding aid. 
  • Avoid intellectual folder groupings as well. Establish subseries if needed or incorporate the folder grouping title into the individual folder title when feasible.  
  • Create and write folder titles that are precise and include the name of the collection, the series (and subseries if appropriate), the file title, inclusive dates, and folder number.
  • DO fully arrange items within folders in a logical order, usually chronological. 
  • Create note within the folder for any items that you separate for storage in another container. In an oversized container that houses items removed from other folders, clearly reference the original box and folder from where the oversized item was removed. 
  • Re-house all collection contents into acid-free folders and containers. Interleave all original vintage photographs, fragile documents, artwork, and acidic documents with the most appropriate interleaving papers. Also interleave sketchbooks with acid-free tissue if possible, providing additional support and special housing if needed.
  • Remove all staples, paper clips and rubber bands, and other fasteners.  Unfold all folded documents.
  • Prepare an EAD Finding Aid that follows all standards and guidelines. At this level, write a detailed and robust biographical/historical note and scope and content note. Be sure to include references to many access points within the narrative sections.
  • Craft series descriptions that are fully descriptive and not redundant of the scope and content note.  Subseries descriptions are optional, but desired for complex collections. 
  • Add scope notes at the folder level if needed to enhance description and access.

Audiovisual Material Tasks:

  • Re-house any AV items found in substandard housing.  
  • Consult with the AV archivist if you wish to play audiovisual material to help with processing.
  • If motion picture film has been removed for cold storage, consult the film inspection database for information to include in your description.
  • You can consider in-house digitization of AV during processing if it is at all difficult to understand what is on them based on the labeling, if items are stable enough to be played. Digitization will make the identification and description process more efficient, particularly when comparing content that might be duplicated in the collection, or when determining if there are multiple items on a piece of media. Consult with the AV archivist if you wish to digitize AV to help with processing.
  • Item-level components are typically created for all media, with cross references, <physfacet> notes, or <scopecontent> notes to clarify content and enhance access.