Processing Guidelines: Chapter 3, Archival Arrangement at the Archives of American Art

Chapter Contents:


These guidelines address the most common archival arrangement schemas at the Archives of American Art, presented as potential series. However, every archival collection is unique and not all materials will fit neatly into these series. Always discuss the options for arrangement and series titles with your supervisor. 

Processing archivists arrange collection materials into series that document related activities or functions or that have common characteristics. Respect des fonds and original order are the two basic underlying concepts of archival arrangement and, when possible, the arrangement of the collection should reflect the creator’s original order. Respect des fonds instructs archivists to maintain the unity of a collection as created, as well as the evidence of the context of the collection’s creation. The tenant of original order in archival arrangement refers to preserving the original order and interrelationships among the archival materials—to whatever extent they still exist. However, often the true original order at the time of creation has been lost by the time the processing archivist begins to arrange the collection, particularly when dealing with legacy backlog collections or personal papers that either had no real order upon creation or have since been arranged by donors or family members.

The default level for processing at the Archives of American Art is Level 2, minimal as outlined in Chapter 2 of the Processing Manual. The Archives’ minimal-level processing guidelines discourage the creation of complex sub-groupings, such as subseries and sub-subseries unless the collection is particularly large and/or complex. Thus, staff will process most collections down to the series and file component levels only. Item level arrangement within folders is not to be undertaken for most collections.

When possible, audiovisual and born digital media are arranged according to content and context, not media format. It is acceptable only to establish series based on media format when the materials are unidentified.

What Kind of Collection is it and What Should it be Titled?

AAA follows DACS guidelines (Section 2.3) for creating collection titles. Most collections can be classified and titled according to 1) the name of the creator/s or collector/s and 2) the nature of the materials being described: personal papers, family papers, gallery records, association records, research collections, etc. The title should include the name of the person/s, family/families, or corporate body predominantly responsible for the creation, assembly, accumulation, and/or maintenance of the materials.

Most often, the collection-level record already has the correct form of the title. However, the processing archivist should review the accuracy of the title during the survey or when processing. For example, a title could change if the archivist discovers that there are additional substantial creators within the collection or if the title does not accurately reflect the contents.

Archival Hierarchical Arrangement

Archival arrangement involves establishing a hierarchal order of the materials found within the entire collection, such as

  • Collection
    • Series
      • Sub-series/Folder Groupings (optional)
        • Folders
          • Items

Do not establish unnecessarily complicated hierarchies and nesting numerous levels as this requires tedious data entry, is labor intensive, and can be difficult for users to follow. Although it may be necessary for particularly complex and large collections, the archivist should attempt to arrange the collection so that the hierarchy is as simple and concise as possible. For small collections and minimally processed collections, perhaps only one series is needed. All collections will be arranged into at least one series, even minimally processed collections.

Based on the contents of the collection, the following hierarchies within a series are acceptable:

  • Series containing folders—most common and preferred.
  • Series divided into subseries—often needed for larger and more complex collections, or collections of multiple creators.
  • Series divided into subseries, and further divided into sub-subseries—rarely needed.
  • Series containing folder groupings—similar to subseries and encoded as parent components, for a smaller and distinct group of materials within a series when the rest of series or subseries is arranged by file/folder. Use folder groupings sparingly and only when the extent of the material truly warrants some level of separation from the other folders in the series for ease of use.
  • Series containing items—rarely used at AAA except for special formats such as audiovisual materials. 

Extent will determine whether the processing archivist creates additional subseries or folder groupings within series. For example, Writings might be a series containing manuscripts, drafts, lectures, etc., or each of these might become subseries within the series, or a unique series if extent warrants. For small groups of files with the same or similar materials, a descriptive folder title is adequate and preferred over a complex hierarchy.

Series Titles and Arrangement

Over time, AAA staff has identified the most typical related groupings/series found in collections. These somewhat standardized groupings are based on primary functions, activities, or types of similar materials. Some of the series and groupings listed here are appropriate for personal papers, others for business or organizational records, and many could be applicable to both.

Although many of the series titles listed here appear to be based on formats, they are generally naturally occurring groupings that creators use to arrange their archives. Always follow the creator’s arrangement if it is logical and can be used by researchers. Generally, the processing archivist does not need to separate individual documents, files, or groups of files from their naturally occurring original grouping and re-arrange based on format. It is natural for series to occur based on functions, activities, projects, etc. and to contain a wide variety of materials and formats. If the creator filed varied documents (correspondence, photographs, printed materials, AV, etc.) together because they are related to a specific interest, function, or activity, then leave the materials together.

When audiovisual and born digital media exists in an archival collection, it is often related intellectually to other content found in the collection. This relationship between these special formats and other records within the collection should be maintained and expressed in the arrangement.

Again, every collection is unique and there will be materials that do not readily fit into one of these series; consult your supervisor for creative suggestions and solutions.

The list below loosely represents AAA’s preferred order of arrangement.

  1. Biographical Material
  2. Administrative Records
  3. Correspondence
  4. Interviews
  5. Diaries and Journals
  6. Writings
  7. Artist Files
  8. Exhibition Files/Gallery Files
  9. Professional Files
  10. Project Files/Commission Files
  11. Research Files/Subject Files
  12. Teaching Files
  13. Membership and Association Records
  14. Donor Files/Collector Files/Client Files
  15. Financial & Legal Records
  16. Personal Business Records
  17. Inventory and Sales Records
  18. Printed Material
  19. Scrapbooks
  20. Artwork
  21. Photographic Material


Biographical Material

Biographical Material is usually the first series for a collection of personal papers. Typically, biographical materials include:

  • Life documents, such as birth and death certificates, passports, marriage and divorce records
  • Resumes, biographical summaries, chronologies
  • Scattered legal and financial documents (if not enough for a separate series)
  • Awards and certificates
  • Membership documents and certificates
  • Address books
  • Interviews and transcripts (more than a few should form a series.)
  • Scattered family histories and papers
  • Student records
  • Scattered autobiographical essays (if not enough for a Writings series)    
  • Home movies

The series can contain a wide variety of materials and those odd items that are scattered throughout the collection in such a limited quantity that a separate series is not needed, such as one or two items or one or two folders of legal and financial documents, lists, notes, one interview, etc. However, Biographical Material should not become a “catch all” for materials that could be arranged into unique series.

Most medical records are not critical to the understanding of the work of the creator and should be disposed of. Third-party medical records of a hospital, treatment facility, or doctor are also subject to legal restrictions.

Arrangement: Biographical material is generally arranged into file units based on type of document or topical heading. Files are typically arranged alphabetically.


Administrative Records

A series of Administrative Records may be established for the archival records of an association, organization, or gallery similar to a Biographical Material series for personal papers. The series might contain records related to the founding, organization, and administration of the entity, such as meeting minutes, charters, by-laws, lists of founders, written histories, board of directors’ files, membership lists, annual reports, etc. Scattered correspondence may also be found.

Just as with Biographical Material, the extent of one group of materials will determine whether they should form a separate series and/or subseries. For example, there may be a large quantity of board minutes or president’s files which could form a unique series, or a subseries under Administration Records.



Correspondence implies communication to and from the creator – a two-way dialog. Letters indicate a one-way dialog, such as incoming or outgoing letters. When mixed, title the entire series Correspondence, and be more specific with subseries titles if needed.

Most collections of personal papers have only a single correspondence series. However, large and/or complex personal papers, family papers, and business or organizational records may have several subseries of correspondence and/or letters. For example, there may be business correspondence with one or more correspondents, and a set of outgoing letters, or perhaps family correspondence was maintained separately from professional correspondence.

Remember, correspondence is often mixed throughout the collection in other series, such as subject files, research files, publishing files, exhibition files, artists’ files, project and commission files, teaching files, etc. These series most often contain a wide variety of materials, including correspondence that should remain with the rest of the documents in that file unit. Moreover, in some collections, correspondence may be found ONLY in these files, rather than being separated into its own series. In this case, leave it. Again, let the original order guide you.

Letterpress books, memoranda, telegrams, Christmas and greeting cards, illustrated letters, and emails should all be included in a correspondence series.

Arrangement: It is very difficult and time-consuming to create an arrangement of correspondence independent of the creator’s arrangement, particularly if the processing archivist tries to establish subject headings. This is generally not recommended. The preferred method of arranging a correspondence series or subseries is alphabetical by name of correspondent, topic, or event. This allows searchable access points. However, exceptions are made for minimal level processing. All correspondence must be arranged alphabetically if the collection is scheduled for digitization.

When arranging correspondence in alphabetical order, create a named file unit if there are five or more pieces of correspondence with/of the same person. If there are fewer than 5 pieces of correspondence associated with one name or topic, it is acceptable to create alphabetical miscellaneous file unit titles.  For example, “A, Miscellaneous”; “B, Miscellaneous.” Unidentified correspondents and letter fragments should be filed at the end of the series or subseries. The processing archivist can create a scope/list note at the file level containing the names if any or even all of the names within alphabetical miscellaneous files need to be individually identified in the finding aid. 

If the original order is chronological, or if the correspondence is unorganized and has no logical arrangement and alphabetizing would be too time consuming, arrange the correspondence in chronological order, particularly for minimally processed collections. Use scope notes at the series level or at the folder level to provide name access.



Interview recordings (both analog and digital) and interview transcripts are common in Archives’ collections. Be precise in titling series. If there are only interviews found and no transcripts, title the series Interviews. If there are transcripts only, title the series Interview Transcripts. Arrange audio and video recordings of interviews in the Interviews series. When the collection contains one or two interviews/transcripts, it is acceptable to arrange those in the Biographical Materials series. If there are more than two, a series should be established.

Interviews and transcripts are also commonly found in other series, such as writing project files, research files, and exhibition files. For context, they should always remain with those related files. If the interviews have already been separated, the processing archivist may establish a unique series, or consider whether it is more appropriate to arrange the materials with the related files if time permits. 

Always state the name of both the interviewee and the interviewer in the file title, when known. 


Diaries and Journals

Diaries and journals form their own series when there are more than two. Two or fewer can be arranged in the Writings series. It is often difficult to differentiate between a diary and a journal. Usually a journal is more reflective and records the creator’s feelings, while a diary documents activities – always use the creator’s title if labeled. Both are usually in a dated format. In some cases, diaries and journals are focused on one specific activity, such as travel or painting. If the creator has not labeled the item/s specifically as either a journal or diary, default to “diary.”

Diaries and journals of artists are sometimes illustrated (be careful not to confuse with sketchbooks). If it appears that there are more drawings within the diary or notebook than writings, either incorporate that information in the title (for example, Illustrated Journals), or alternatively arrange them as "Annotated Sketchbooks" in the Artwork series.

Arrangement: Diaries or journals are arranged in chronological order, unless there are identifiable sets of diaries/journals for separate activities. A collection of family papers might also contain diaries of more than one family member.


Writings /Writing Projects

Personal papers typically contain a wide variety of writings, manuscripts and drafts, journal articles, exhibition catalog essays, prose, poems, lists, speeches, lectures, notes and notebooks, heavily annotated calendars, etc. authored by the creator or by others about the creator and can most often be arranged into one series, with subseries if extent warrants. Be specific with the series title. For example, if lectures are the only format of writing found, then title the series Lectures.

Manuscript and published versions of books written by the creator are also arranged here. Books of interest to the creator or about the creator should be weeded from the collection, unless they are rare. Weeded books will be given to the SI Libraries. Other published materials about the creator, such as printed articles, clippings, exhibition catalogs, etc. should be filed in the series of printed materials, if archival.

If the collection contains only one or two diaries or journals, arrange these in the Writings series. If there are more than two diaries or journals, they should form a separate series.

Writings by others are arranged in this series as well, perhaps as a separate subseries if extent warrants. 

As with other series, writings are commonly found in other series, such as writing project files, exhibition files, project/commission files, teaching files, etc. (See below)

Groupings and subseries can be created based on the various forms/genres of the writings, and in chronological order after that.

The archivist may establish a Writing Project Files series when there is supplementary documentation with the completed or draft writings. This is often found in the papers of art historians. The supplementary documentations might consists of a mix of research notes, drafts, related correspondence, publication documentation, etc. If there is also a copy of the final published piece, it should be arranged here, rather than in the Writings series. In some cases, there will be both a Writings series and a Writing Project Files series, wherein only a few of the creator’s writings have supplementary documentation. 


Artist Files

Artist files are typically found in gallery records and the papers of art historians. In gallery records, artist files consist of materials relating to an artist either represented by the gallery or in which the gallery had an interest. Most often, files document a relationship that the gallery had with an artist. In some cases, artist files may represent a passive activity or general interest of the gallery and may be better arranged as research or reference files. The papers of art historians also often contain research files arranged by artists’ names. The files could document relationships (less common) with artists, document research activities, or reflect a more general research interest.

These files often contain a wide variety of materials such as correspondence, photographs, sales records, legal documentation, exhibition records, printed materials, etc.

Arrangement: Arrange in alphabetical order by name of artist. If an artist is represented by a subset of folders, consider arranging into folder groups. You will rarely need to establish subseries unless there is extensive documentation for EACH artist. In some cases the creator may have removed photographs, posters, or catalogs from the artists’ files and filed them elsewhere. Maintain the creator’s arrangement.


Exhibition Files/ Gallery Files

Exhibition Files and/or Gallery Files are found in both personal papers and gallery/organizational records. The files generally contain a variety of materials related to and documenting individual named exhibitions, such as planning documents, lists of works of art, correspondence, loan forms, condition reports, insurance and shipping documents, photographs, annotated catalogs, scrapbooks, video and film, etc.

Arrange exhibition files by name of exhibition in chronological order by date of exhibition. All materials for one exhibition are maintained together, including exhibition catalogs, if other documentation of the exhibition exists. If, however, the only documentation of an exhibition is a published catalog, the catalog should be arranged in the Printed Materials series.

Titles of exhibitions are expressed in italics followed by the date/s of the exhibition in parenthesis, followed by the dates of the archival materials. The dates of the actual exhibition form part of the unit title of the file. DO NOT confuse the date/s of the exhibition with the date/s of the materials in the folder – even if they are the same date/s. 

Sometimes the archivist will not easily be able to find an exact title of an exhibition. In these cases, create a file title based on the name of the artist, venue, or date. Brackets are not necessary. 


Professional Files

Professional Files is a valid series title when the creator arranged all of his or her work related files together, usually in some sort of comprehensive alphabetical order, or there are a substantial number of files that reflect the creator’s professional activities outside of their primary job, such as work on juried shows, their work and memberships in professional organizations, advisory and consulting work, serving on government committees, etc., or the collection contains files reflecting numerous professional activities but these files do not exist in enough quantify to justify establishing separate series for each type of activity. 


Project Files/ Commission Files

Personal papers may contain files organized according to clearly identified projects or commissioned work, particularly the papers of sculptors, muralists, architects, and curators. The processing archivist may have one series for one major named project, one series for all project files, or subseries for a number of named projects. The processing archivists may also establish a series entitled Project Files with subseries to accommodate different categories of projects, such as “curatorial projects”, “consulting projects”, etc. Remember, these files should reflect distinct, identifiable work projects in which the creator was involved.


Research Files/ Subject Files

Research Files should be easy to identify, but only use this title if the files contain research notes and other supporting documentation about a topic of research. If the files are associated with one specific exhibition, or project, or writing project, or about artists, they should be arranged accordingly.

Sometimes these files are just all mixed together, usually by research topic. This is sometimes the case with art historians’ papers. Their files often reflect their life-long scholarly interests in which they invested substantial research and about which they wrote multiple articles, books, lectures, and presentations, and even perhaps curated a few exhibitions. It is too difficult and time consuming to sort these files by resulting “product” if the files are not already such an order. Thus, the files can remain together and be organized by research topic, which is usually apparent. When mixed, title the series appropriately, such as Research and Writing Projects.

Generally, arrange subject files or research files in alphabetical order according to subject heading. For subject files, they might represent a passive or undefined role of the creator who collated them simply because they were of a particular interest OR the files are arranged by subjects and names because they documented a specific activity. It is always best craft a series title as specific as possible when the files are arranged by subject, for example, professional files, project files, etc. 

Some creators, however, have simply merged all of their files that reflect personal and professional interests and work-related activities into one large group. The files could be arranged by a mix of subject headings and names, usually in alpha order. It is likely too difficult and time consuming to start separating documents and files according to specific activities, so the original order of the creator is preferred. In these cases, Subject Files is good series title.

It is very difficult for a processing archivist to establish a group of subject files outside of the creator’s original order. So, if the creator did not have a well identified series of subject files, it is best not to create one, or consult with your supervisor before doing so. 


Teaching Files

If extent warrants, the archivist may establish a Teaching Files series. However, if there are only a few files, they may be arranged in the Professional Files series, or in the Biographical Materials series if there is not a series for professional files. These files should document the creator’s work at the university or college level, classes taught, workshops, and seminars.

Be aware of student records in these files, which may not appropriate to keep. Student records and records of their work and grades are subject to privacy law. 


Membership and Association Files

If extent warrants, establish a Membership and/or Association Records series for files maintained by the creator documenting their activities and memberships in professional organizations. If the extent does not warrant a separate series, arrange these files in the Professional Files series, perhaps as a subseries.


Collector Files/ Client Files

Collector/Client Files are often maintained by dealers and galleries. The files document the gallery’s relationships and transactions with, and interest in donors, collectors, clients, other galleries, and museums. The files could contain a wide variety of materials and document and usually document marketing, sales, loans, relationships, interests in donors and clients.

Sometimes, the files will only document one specific transaction, such as sales or communication. If the client files consist only of correspondence, then they should be arranged in the Correspondence series, perhaps as a separate subseries. If client files contain only sales invoices and receipts, they could also be arranged with the financial records as a separate subseries or grouping. 


Financial Records/ Legal Records

Most gallery and association records will contain some sort of financial and/or legal records documenting sales and purchases of artwork.  There can be many formats, such as purchase orders or receipts; invoices; sales receipts and ledgers; price lists; consignment invoices; account books or journals; banking records (most of these are non-archival and can be disposed of); tax records (again, many of these records are non-archival); and audit reports. Often related are shipping and insurance records. There may also be financial records related to specific projects or activities, such as publishing and printing.

Financial and legal records are usually arranged according to either the type of transaction they document or more generally into format, i.e., ledgers, or even a mix of both. It is worth taking some extra time to sort out the various types of transactions and filing systems used as these records contain rich documentation for researching provenance.

Legal records are equally varied and may include lawsuit records, estate settlement records, or personal legal records of the business owner. Legal records are usually a subseries of Financial Records and/or the title of the series can be Financial & Legal Records. However, Legal Records can also be a unique series if extent warrants.

Processing archivists must be careful not to expose private information, such as social security numbers, etc.  Employee records and resumes of employees are often non-archival and can be disposed of. Please see note at the end of this document about personally identifiable information.


Personal Business Records

Personal papers often contain documents related to the creator’s financial, legal, and business affairs.  Examples include sales and purchases of artwork and artwork supplies, price lists, contracts, loans, gallery dealings, lawsuits, leases, banking, taxes, publishing, estate settlements, etc.  Extent will determine the need to establish a series for personal business records. If only a few scattered documents exist, they may be arranged in the Biographical Materials series.  Financial, legal, and business records may also be found within other series, such as project files, exhibition files, writing project files.


Inventory Records/ Sales Records

Most galleries maintain inventory and sales records in various formats and arrangements.  They may take the form of cards, notebooks, ledgers, loose pages, or a combination of types of records.  They may include extensive photographic documentation. Some galleries maintained their inventory and sales records according to complicated filing or numbering schemas, with cross references across formats.  For example, there may be inventory cards arranged by year, referenced to notebooks arranged by name of artist.  If the processing archivist can decipher the system, it should be documented in the finding aid.


Printed Material

Typical printed materials include exhibition catalogs not filed with exhibition files, exhibition announcements, posters, news and magazine clippings (including printed reproductions of artwork), entire newspapers and magazines, press releases, bulletins, printed reports, flyers and brochures, maps, blank postcards, etc. Printed materials may focus on the creator’s interests or life and work, or depict printed images of the work of the creator.

Printed materials are commonly found in other series as well, such as project files, research files, exhibition files, project files, artists’ files, etc. In most cases, these should remain in context. Printed materials that represent writings by the creator may be arranged with Printed Materials or with Writings. Scrapbooks containing printed materials are usually arranged in a separate series (see below).



Scrapbooks usually contain clippings and photographs focusing on the creator’s life or specific activities.  Many also contain brochures, awards, certificates, and letters. Businesses and galleries also create scrapbooks.

If the collection has one or two scrapbooks of news clippings, this can be included in the printed material series. Otherwise, scrapbooks should form their own series. Scrapbooks can be arranged by subject or chronologically.



Artwork is common in the Archives’ collections of personal papers. The Archives does not collect completed, finished works of art, but does collection preliminary artwork, such as studies, sketches, watercolor sketches, drawings, prints, and sketchbooks. Detailed genre information is not needed for minimally processed collections, nor is artwork cataloged according to museum standards. Illustrated letters and hand-made Christmas cards, are often found within a correspondence series and should remain there. Artwork can be arranged by medium, or by artist, if more than one artist is represented.

Sketchbooks are a form of artwork that can be arranged as part of an artwork series or as a separate series or subseries if there is a large extent. Sketchbooks are often numbered and/or titled by the artist.


Photographic Material

A series of photographic material might contain a variety of formats, including snapshots, copy prints, original prints, negatives, cased photographs, photograph albums, slides, transparencies, digital photographs, and photograph albums.

Images of any number of subjects might be included such as portraits and candid images of the creator, family members, friends, the artist at work, studios, homes and houses, gallery exteriors, travels, events and parties, exhibition openings and installation views, artwork, reference and resource images, projects, etc.

Arrangement: Photographs should be arranged according to intellectual content and subject matter of the photograph. If negatives, slides, or transparencies are stored in separate folders, identify the formats and in the folder heading. As with most materials, photographs are often found in other series and should remain where they provide the most context.