Classify your archive and collections

Before you can do anything with your archive or collection, you first need to know where all the documents are located and what conditions they have been stored in. This information is a great help when formulating objectives relating to archive and collection management, prioritisation, and drawing up a concrete step-by-step plan. It helps you keep a good overview and prevent parts of your archive or collection from becoming lost.

You can find out how to classify your archive and/or collections in this step-by-step plan, which consists of three main steps and can be used for both paper and digital archives and collections. General templates for registering the archives and collections and mapping digital content are included as appendices.

Step 1: Preparation

The first question you need to ask is where the archive and collections are stored, and by whom: what room(s) can they be found in? Everything might be stored together in one central area, but organisations often have archives and collections spread across different rooms, so start by drawing up an overview of the places where all your archive items are located.

This might be in a physical location (office X, rehearsal room Y, location Z...) as well as on a digital carrier (external hard drive A, box of diskettes B, Google Drive C, shared server D...). You should also check your colleagues’ desks, and remember to look beyond your own organisation; a local historical society or municipal archive might also have some items belonging to the archive. As well as noting the archive locations, you also need to check what actions your organisation has already undertaken to make your archive accessible. Have any inventories been made for parts of the archive or collections in the past, and are they still available? What information might you gain from them? Has any part of the archive previously been provided to a depository? And if so, what documents are they? Computer and server management is also important here: what happened to content stored on a local drive when you switched to a shared server, for example?

Ideally, you’ll also have time to find information about the organisation’s history:

  • What did the organisation used to do? What is it doing now? Draw up an overview of your organisation’s work, including its key tasks and any supporting activities (e.g. finance, personnel administration, property and building management, communications...) Each of these activities could result in items for your archive and collections, and the overview should give you an idea of the types of documents and objects you might find. Changes to the organisation’s operations can explain the presence or absence of certain types of archive documents.
  • What are the key moments in the organisation’s history? Note the date it was founded alongside details of any acquisitions, mergers, demergers and changes to the name or organisational structure (e.g. transition from unincorporated association to non-profit organisation). Also check whether there have been any events or incidents where heritage items might have been lost, such as a fire, flooded basement, burglary or computer crash, etc. This information can help you contextualise the archive and collections you are classifying, and trace information about older documents or missing files.
  • Who were and are the key figures in the organisation? The founder(s), directors and governing bodies (executive board, general assembly) have a major influence on the archive. Who else contributes or has contributed to achieving your objectives? Are they connected to the organisation as employees or external stakeholders?

Involve (ex-)colleagues and (ex-)directors in your search, or delve into the archive: you will often find lots of information about your organisation’s history, work and structure in policy plans and annual reports. Non-profit organisations are obliged to keep a record of members attending a general assembly, for example, and minutes from meetings also contain lots of names and relevant dates. The organisation’s statutes or a publication about its history can also be extremely helpful.

Gathering this information can be a work in progress; the information you find can help you track down archives and collections, which in turn can uncover new information about the organisation’s history. Use your own knowledge as a starting point and take further steps from there. Update your overview of physical locations and digital media each time you find new information. And remember to look in less obvious places too, because archive items can turn up in the most unlikely settings.

Step 2: Note basic details about the archive and collections

Once you’ve gathered sufficient contextual information about the archive and know where everything is being kept, you can go to the physical location(s) to register a number of basic details, possibly using the plan in the appendix (‘Uitleg’ (Explanation) tab) as a guide. The best working method is to note information about the archive for each room and cabinet, and even the relevant shelf if applicable, and possibly take photographs of what you find. It’s important to take enough time to work accurately and systematically.

Use the same method for digital archives. You can record the digital documents’ locations in the same list, or use the template for classifying digital content.

It’s certainly not the intention to describe each individual document or object in a detailed inventory, but rather to have a general overview. So look for defined classifications and focus on what documents or objects have in common and how they differ from other categories. Don’t describe the individual press articles in your overview, for example, and instead consider the folders or binders where they are stored.

It's rare that you find complete chaos. People generally have their reasons for storing certain documents or objects in a particular place, or keeping certain documents or objects together (or apart):

  • Documents or objects of the same type are often stored together, e.g. a box of programmes.
  • Documents or objects originating from the same person, activity or event. You may well store a box of documents brought in by an ex-director as a whole, for example, even if it contains different types of documents.
  • The condition of documents or objects, or the way in which they have been organised, is often very revealing. Newly purchased books are kept separate from older collections, or older copies might be in such a poor condition that they're ready to be thrown away.
  • Documents that ‘belong together’ are usually kept in the same folder or box. Take this idea as your starting point and describe your archive and collections at ‘packaging unit’ level.

In some cases, simply describing the archive and collections at a more general level is sufficient. Or if multiple packaging units together form a greater, logical whole, you can describe it at this level, e.g. if successive folders or boxes only contain production dossiers, you can simply describe then as ‘x boxes of production dossiers’. Clearly indicate clearly how many folders or boxes there are, expressed in dimensions if necessary.

Another example is to use a shared description, such as ‘Concert photos - 1960-1980 - 4 albums’, instead of describing four separate photo albums. Keep in mind that the location where you found the materials is the starting point for making the inventory, so an administration folder that’s ‘lost’ in amongst boxes of posters is always described individually, even if the other folders of administrative documents are kept together as a single series. Describe the situation as it is, not the desired situation.

Any markings that appear on the packaging units can be used to identify larger series, but you should take into account the fact that these markings might not always correspond with the actual contents. Sometimes old boxes are re-used without writing being crossed out or removed, for example, so use sampling to check whether any markings really do correspond with the contents.

Use your intuition to determine what level you need to go to at this stage, and be pragmatic.

The findings from this activity are recorded in a central register, e.g. an Excel file. An example register that can be used straight away or serve as inspiration for drawing up your own register has been developed as an appendix to this guideline.

You can use the same register for digital archives, although a separate template has also been drawn up.

Step 3: Analyse the information and describe any problems

Once you have gathered all the information about your archive and collections, it’s important to record it in a sustainable way so you don’t need to repeat the work again at a later date.

The information gathered forms the basis for good archive and collection management. It is therefore important to analyse everything properly and take good note of any problems. How much content is there? What condition is the archive in? What items are missing? What else can be cleared up? What agreements need to be made? Which avenues can be investigated further? Make sure you also pay adequate attention to digital content with all its potential issues around backing up, obsolete files or overly complex folder structures.

Your conclusions will help to form a policy for managing your archive or collections and determining priorities.

Authors: Het Firmament, Resonant, Bart Magnus (PACKED vzw), Florian Daemen (Archive and Museum for the Flemish Living in Brussels)

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