From Accession to Access: The Art of Archival Processing

When you imagine an archives, you probably think of a room filled with rows of uniform grey boxes that contain perfectly ordered folders with delicate, one-of-a-kind items inside that are just waiting to be explored.

But what you what you might not know, is that it takes a lot of labour to transform a donation of records into a pristine archival fonds or collection. This essential work is called archival processing.

What is a fonds?

Archivists use the word fonds to describe the body of records that a person or organization creates and/or accumulates. 

Alternatively, when someone deliberately gathers and organizes materials based on a theme or topic, archivists use the word collection.

In this exhibit, we will walk you through how we process records here at the City of Coquitlam Archives, using the recently completed ArtsConnect Tri Cities Arts Council fonds as an example. 

The purpose of archival processing is to get a good understanding of the materials that have been donated and to provide researchers with a road map for accessing the records. Archival processing includes the activities of accessioning, appraising, arranging, preserving, and describing archival materials, and then promoting access to the records. We will explore all of these steps below.

Received StateReceived state of the ArtsConnect accession

Final fondsFinal processed state of the ArtsConnect fonds

Accessioning ArtsConnect

Brochure from F39-S5-F1-3 Opens in new windowCoquitlam Area Fine Arts Council brochure (F39-S5-F1-F1-3)

 F39-S4-F03-1Blue Mountain Arts Festival program (F39-S4-F03-F03-1)

The ArtsConnect Tri-Cities Arts Council (ArtsConnect) donated its records to the City of Coquitlam Archives in a series of transfers in 2018. When we receive a donation of records, we often have limited information about the contents of the individual boxes that come through our doors. For this reason, the first step in the archival process is accessioning

Accessioning involves taking custody of the materials and creating an inventory of the contents of the boxes. Through this process, the archivist gains intellectual control over the records that have been transferred. It is also at this stage where the archivist starts to get some preliminary information about the person or organization transferring the records. 

ArtsConnect is a non-profit society and regional arts council, dedicated to “connecting people through the arts.” The group acts as an arts resource, providing information about arts and cultural events and opportunities to the community at large. Its records span from 1964 to 2018.

The Archives received a total of seven linear metres of analogue materials and 44.9 MB of digital records from ArtsConnect that included a variety of records, posters, ephemera, U-matic videocassettes, and Microsoft Word documents. 

Appraising ArtsConnect

Appraising materialsSpreading out and appraising materials in the ArtsConnect accession

The next step in archival processing is called appraisal, which is the process whereby the archivist determines which records to keep as part of the final, processed fonds. Archivists weigh many different factors to help decide whether a record is important enough to warrant the time, labour, and expense it will take to preserve it over the long-term.

There is no exact formula for archival appraisal, but archivists are guided by institutional collection policies, research, and professional expertise in order to determine archival value. The archivist takes into account a number of factors, including the informational and evidential value of the records. Informational value relates to the persons, places, events, or subjects addressed in the records; while evidential value judges the potential for records to act as evidence to prove what happened, when, and why.

Other considerations include the value records have to a community, whether the records are one-of-a-kind or made of rare materials, or if records can be used to ensure accountability. Archivists analyze all of these factors and thoroughly document their decisions. The final archival fonds is, therefore, a subset of the original transferred accession. 

In the case of ArtsConnect, the appraisal of the fonds involved the removal of duplicate records, records that contained minimal information and those that summarized or included the results of others. It was the job of the archivist to discern which records were the richest in information and, therefore, the best records to keep. For example, the transfer included more than twenty copies of the same annual report. The final fonds includes only one copy that was in the best physical condition.

Arranging ArtsConnect

Arranging with interfile and tbdRe-arranging unknown records in the ArtsConnect accession into “interfile” and “TBD” boxes

Arraning series 4Chronologically arranging Series 4: “Exhibitions, events, and media coverage” to rehouse into acid-free boxes.

Once records are appraised, the archivist moves on to the next step: arrangement. Here, archivists look at the order of records and determine if there are any distinguishing patterns. Some materials may already have a discernable order to them. For example, an organized filing cabinet drawer may have been transferred in its entirety to a box. In other cases, records, videocassette tapes, photographs, programs and ephemera from disparate years and events may be intermixed. This was the case with the majority of the ArtsConnect records. 

Archivists try to preserve the contextual interconnections, or archival bond, between records that are filed next to each other, as they often shed light on how an organization functioned. In the case of ArtsConnect, it was difficult to discern a prescribed order, so the archivist imposed a hierarchical structure of series, files and items based on the subjects and functions of the records and the events they documented.  

Working through the records in each box in the accession, the archivist found items that corresponded to each other and these were arranged together. Although this was an iterative process, it allowed posters, U-matic videocassettes and correspondence that were filed across the span of four boxes to be intellectually and physically arranged together.

Arranging posters, UmaticsArranging correspondence, posters, and U-matic videocassettes related to three different Tri-Cities Children’s Festival event files in Series 4: “Exhibitions, events, and media coverage” before preservation in acid-free folders and boxes

Preserving ArtsConnect

As an archivist works through the records to create a logical arrangement structure, they are also thinking about how best to ensure the records last over time. While arranging, the archivist is also sorting, filing, labelling and rehousing the materials into archival containers — all tasks which are part of the next step in the archival process: preservation

Preservation is an integral part of archival work. Archivists arrange and order the records so they can be accessible to researchers, but the work doesn’t stop there. Archivists also rehouse materials in order to slow their degradation, to protect fragile or brittle documents and to ensure items are preserved for as long as possible. 

All of the records at the City of Coquitlam Archives are housed in a temperature-controlled vault with limited exposure to light. Sometimes records come to the Archives in enclosures that are deteriorating or harmful to records and so the archivist must take the items out of their degrading enclosures, unfold and smooth all papers, remove fasteners and house items in acid-free folders inside reinforced acid-free boxes.

Box LidCreased accession box lid with foxing and particulate dirt

Overfilled boxesOver-filled, bent, and creased accession boxes

Records can often be the victims of time and rough handling as they transition from their purposeful business life to their secondary life as reference materials that may not be consulted for many years. Over time, records become folded, creased, crumpled and ripped. Sometimes they may become damaged by water, dust or other contaminants. It can be tough out there for a record! Many items in the ArtsConnect donation were showing signs of deterioration and were in need of some attention.

Poster from F39-S4-F01-2Festival of the Arts poster removed from a binder, with hole punches, folds, adhesive and dirt particulates (F39-S4-F01-F01-2)

Acidic enclosuresThe archivist removed acidic and degrading paper and enclosures to rehouse records in acid-free folders

Records can also be the victims of technological change and obsolescence. A large number of the records in the ArtsConnect accession were printed on Thermofax and Electrofax paper, which time has shown to be unstable and prone to fading and yellowing. Unfortunately, even though some of the Electrofax records were less than twenty years old, they were almost completely unreadable. As a preservation measure, the archivist photocopied the unstable records onto acid-free archival bond paper to retain the records’ informational content.

Another significant preservation concern is degrading metal and inorganic materials. Dried elastics, actively rusting staples, paperclips and bulldog clips will often transfer their residue onto records. While processing the ArtsConnect fonds, the archivist filled an entire jar with rusting metal fasteners. To keep records together, the archivist replaced the metal fasteners and elastics with inert plastic clips or filed the records in separate acid-free folders.

Degrading fasteners Opens in new windowDegrading metal and plastic fasteners

Jar of rusted metalJar filled with rusting and degrading metal fasteners

Describing the ArtsConnect fonds

The penultimate step of the archival process is description. Archivists create a description of the fonds so researchers can understand the context of the materials. Since not everyone can come in to the Archives in person, the archivist creates a textual representation of the finished fonds called a finding aid. The finding aid is a window into the fonds.

Canadian archivists follow description standards set out by the national archival community. The Rules for Archival Description (RAD) provide guidance on how to describe records in a uniform way so that researchers will find standard finding aids across Canadian archives. 

In this case, the archivist created a detailed description about the organization, its functions, the contents of each series, the range of dates, access restrictions, copyright, the physical condition of the records and more. The archivist does this by doing background research on the context that led to the creation of the records, using published sources and by consulting the records themselves.

Promoting Access

The final part of archival processing is promoting access. Once all the records have been appraised, arranged, preserved and described, it’s time to add the finding aid to Quest – the City of Coquitlam Archives’ online search portal. The finding aid for the ArtsConnect Tri-Cities Arts Council fonds is now available for researchers to access anytime and includes a number of digitized materials that researchers can download.

ArtsConnect fonds in Quest Opens in new windowArtsConnect fonds finding aid on Quest

Through their work, archivists take an active role in shaping the final fonds, bringing their knowledge, expertise and lived experience to the records. There is a lot that goes into transforming a donation of records into a final fonds that is ready for researchers to consult. A lot of the work that archivists do is hidden behind the scenes, but we hope that this peek behind the curtain has demystified the steps in the archival process.