Archivist’s Attic – Processing Archives

What a mess, you say to yourself, as you sit around scattered boxes of papers. How am I ever going to find anything in here!?! If you’re lucky, or unlucky as some archivist will tell you, you only have to ask yourself that question a few times in your life. But if you work in a library, archive or museum you might be asking that question to yourself multiple times a day.

Here at the Seabee Museum we get donations and collections every day that need to be assessed, arranged, described and preserved so that we can provide useful information to the visitors and researchers that visit every day.

Processing is the key that unlocks the hidden stories in and among the boxes and folders full of paper. Every collection that comes in to the Seabee Museum has to be processed before it can be put on display or used by researchers and the staff. But how does processing work?


The collection first needs to be looked at, this is called assessing. This the time that the collection is looked at to see what exactly it is made up of. Typical questions archivists ask during the phase are what is the importance of the collection? Who or what is the collection about? Are there any significant issues such as major papers or items that make up the base of the collection? Basically the archivist gets to root around, get dirty and get nosey with the collection. After all, if you don’t know what is in a collection how are you going to tell other people what’s in it?

Cart full of incoming collections


After the archivist has determined what the collection is about then need to start putting it together in an order that makes sense, this is called arranging. Once an archivist knows what they are dealing with they need to make sure that the puzzle pieces of the collection matchup. For example, if the collection is made up of orders from the same location with varying time frames, then organizing the collection by date would give a better description of the location over time. That way if a researcher is looking for what happened in a location at a specific time they can easily pinpoint what they need. Basically the archivist is looking for the most logical way that the collection makes sense so that other people can find information. After all, there is no use in arranging a collection by the color of the paper, if the color doesn’t have any significance and it’s all white and blue.

Special collection library


Once the archivist has determined how the collection will be arranged then they need to actually put down in writing what the collection is about so that others can find the information, this is called describing. After an archivist has arranged a collection then they need to figure out a way to convey that information to others. The most effective way of doing this is to create a ‘finding aid’. A finding aid is simply a written description of the collection using arrangement. By using what the collection is arranged by an archivist will go through the collection and write a small descriptive sentence on what each piece is about. Most archives, including the Seabee Museum, describe collections on a folder level, this means that the finding aid will include folder titles such as, Monthly Reports or Training Manuals. There are usually several things within a folder but not everything is described that is in the folder. It’s a bit like Christmas then when you do open a folder and can see everything in it!


After all the assessing and describing is done what work is left for the archivist to do?!? Well finding aids and photographs are wonderful but it doesn’t do anyone any good if all that information is lost in a few months or years. Once the archivist has made the collection easy to find they need to make sure the collection is going to be around for generations to come. Making sure items will last for years is called preserving and there are many ways an archivist does this. For example at the Seabee Museum we put our documents in archival safe folders, boxes and specially designed plastic sleeves called Mylar. We also make sure that the storage area that holds all the collections are kept at the correct temperature and humidity. In addition we take preventive measures such as digitizing as many of the collections as we can so that the documents are not handled as much, preventing destruction.

Cart of property cards waiting to be processed.

150225-N-JU810-001Meet the Archivist: Ingi House
Ingi House is originally from Kansas where she got her B.A. in history from K.U. and M.L.S. from E.S.U. After working for the Dole Institute of Politics she moved to the East Coast.  In D.C. she worked at the National Archives and Records Admiration and then at the Defense Acquisition University where she became a Certified Archivist. Her continued enjoyment of military history lead her to switching coasts and coming to work for the Seabee Museum where she is collection manager for the archives and records manager liaison

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