Division of Archives and Records Service
Staff at the State Archives participate in an accessioning day

Mastering Accessioning: Unveiling the Art of Organizing Records at the Archives

Maren Peterson
August 21, 2023

The Archives receives records all the time, but what do we do with them after we get them?

The first step in receiving records is to document the transfer of legal custody to the State Archives. We do this either by utilizing a transfer form, by which a government entity signs the records over to us, or by a deed of gift, where a member of the public (or an institution) gives us a record. Once the transfer or deed process is complete, the Archives becomes the legal custodian of the records with authority to process, store, and retain as required.

Renee in van sitting with the records she received from Vital Records.

Once the legal side is taken care of, we then assume physical custody of the records, which means that the Archives has possession of the records in physical formats and/or digital formats. For many historical records, this means that the Archives has received the boxes containing paper records. For digital records, this means that the Archives has received a storage device containing the files, like a USB drive, or has received the files through a digital file transfer. Then archivists can get to work on processing the records. Archivists may choose to process records with varying degrees of detail; the more processing a records series receives, the more detail about the records is available to researchers. However, processing takes time, and the State Archives receives thousands of records a year. 

For most records, archivists at the State Archives opt to do a type of minimal processing called “accessioning”. According to the Dictionary of Archives Terminology, accessioning is to “take intellectual and physical custody of materials.” But what does that mean practically?

Intellectual Control

Archives staff member Lauren works on accessioning records

Basically, intellectual control means understanding, documenting, and communicating what kind of content is in a record collection or series. Keeping a bunch of record boxes is not very useful if you don’t know what’s inside those boxes. Archivists gain intellectual control over a record series by gathering information about the records and storing the information in our internal database system. This includes where the records originated from, what the extent and content of the records is, and writing a description of the records. This description will show up in the Archives online catalog to help researchers understand what the records contain.

Unlike full processing, where an archivist might look closely at every individual item in the record series and write extensive descriptions, create box inventories, indexes, or even a research guide, accessioning means that archivists will arrange the records in a series and provide a general description.

Intellectual control is essential to providing access to the records. Descriptions and finding aids are there to help patrons find exactly what records they need for their research.

Physical Control

Physical control includes factors like arrangement, housing, and any preservation needs the records may have. 

Archives staff looking at records during an accessioning day party.

Arrangement is simply how the records are ordered in a series. Archival best practice is to maintain the original order in which records were created. For instance, we often get vital records like birth certificates in binders. Our Archivist then takes the records out of the binders (which are not great tools for preservation), checks that they are in their original order alphabetically by county, and then chronologically by date,and puts them in acid free folders. They are then put in an archival box for storage.

Housing refers to providing boxes or folders for records that will protect the records and keep them in order. Sometimes we receive records that are oversized, or we receive non-paper records like cassette tapes. We need to find archival safe containers for whatever record we’re storing.

Preservation needs can be almost anything. For instance, this year the Archives received old school reports from the 1910s that had been rolled up and tied with string for storage. Since repeated unrolling of tightly rolled documents can result in damage to the records, our archivists flattened the records and stored them in acid-free folders and archival boxes.

Why is it important?

An intern with the records they accessioned

The accessioning process is important because it raises the records in the Archives to a minimum standard for records control. Accessioning is a valuable tool for archivists because time is a limited resource; it is not feasible to perform extensive processing on every record that the State Archives receives. Every record that comes into the Archives will at least get an accessioning-level of attention, and it means that every record that comes into the Archives will also be discoverable on our website for patrons. 

Accessioning also sets a basic standard of preservation for each record that comes through the door. If we took boxes of records directly from agencies and put them straight into storage we would not know what kind of information the boxes contained or whether they were stored in archival safe materials. Nor would we be able to find the correct record when a patron had a request.

What comes after accessioning?

Once a group of records has been accessioned, archivists may do additional work to further improve accessibility of the records. The level of processing a record receives is determined by an archivist using their expertise to judge how frequently a record will be accessed. To be perfectly honest, the vast majority of our records will only get accessioned. There will be no further need to process them in depth, unless the records become frequently requested by patrons.

For records that are frequently requested, such as legislative minutes, archivists will perform a more extensive level of processing. This means creating a finding aid (which will detail what you can find in each box in the repository), a more comprehensive description, and a more careful arrangement.
If records are in even higher demand, like our WWII records, we will digitize the records and put them online for the public to access. And at the highest level of demand, like birth certificates, we will digitize the records and index them for easy access.