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Archival Processing: Dates

A guide to processing archival collections


Dates are recorded for every level of the collection: collection, series, subseries, and folders. In most cases, assigning dates is straightforward - processors identify the earliest and latest dates of creation for all records within the particular level in question. For example, if a folder houses correspondence written from 1900 to 1905, the folder date will be 1900-1905. Assigning dates to materials can get complicated, however, especially when dealing with copies of original materials. Always date the material, not the content. If a folder houses only photocopies of correspondence written from 1900 to 1905, for example, the folder date will be the date the photocopies were made. The date of the original correspondence will be included as part of the title. In this example, the folder title and date may look something like this:

Correspondence, 1900-1905 (photocopies). 2012.

DACS Rules

Follow DACS (Describing Archives: A Content Standard, 2013) description rules for formatting dates. In DACS, the year of the document’s creation is preeminent - dates are always formatted with the year first, except in the case of estimated dates. Years and months are NEVER abbreviated. Examples of how to format dates in various circumstances are provided here.

Chronological Order

Dates can get tricky! Make sure to arrange from most specific (first) to least specific (last).

For example*:

1931 January 4
1931 January
circa 1931
1931, 1945
1931, 1945-1946
1931, undated

(Folders with the same dates are filed alphabetically.)

*credit to Annalise Berdini of UCSD for this order

Inclusive Date Range

Inclusive dates are used when the contents of a collection, series, subseries, or folder were created across a span of years. The inclusive date range includes the earliest identified date and the latest identified date within a collection, series, subseries, or folder. For example, a folder that contains several letters written during the years 1849 to 1851 will have an inclusive date range that looks like this:

1849-1851 (note there are NO spaces around the dash)
NOT 1849-51


Collections that continue to grow from periodic accruals technically have an open-ended end date, but it should NOT be recorded that way in the finding aid. Processors should treat accruing collections as though the date of the most recent accrual was the end date for the collection.

For example, if the records of Company X are transferred to the archives every five years, the dates of the collection will be updated every five years, after accessioning the most recent accrual. If the archives received the most recent accrual in 2012, and the earliest known date in the collection is 1965, the date would be recorded as such:

NOT "1965-" OR "1965-(Ongoing)"

Significant Gap in Records

Making note of a significant gap in coverage is important. Taking the example from Bulk Dates, and assuming that there is only one document from 1895 and the rest of records fall within 1925-1958, another way to record the dates for that collection is:

1895, 1925-1958

No Dates

Frequently, records are not dated and there is not enough time or information for processors to assign an estimated date. In such cases, folders, subseries, series, and/or collections should be identified as having no date. This information should only be recorded as follows:

undated (note that undated is not capitalized)
NOT n.d.

While it is not uncommon for records to be undated, there are several types of records that are RARELY undated, including most financial records, official documents, and published materials.

DATA ENTRY TIP: If the date is serving as a title of a series, subseries, or folder, the dates should still be entered into the appropriate date fields; the title field should be left empty.

When materials are not dated, "undated" should always be recorded. This way reference archivists and researchers can be sure that a date does not exist, rather than that a date was not assigned.

Single Dates/Exact Single Dates

Single dates are recorded when a record or group of records was produced during a single year and/or on a single day. Single dates should be recorded as follows, note that no punctuation is added to dates and that months are written out and NEVER abbreviated:

1958 March
1958 March 17
1958 March-August (Note that there is no space around the dash)
1958 March 15-August 31 (Note that there is no space around the dash)
1958 March-1960 August
NOT March 17, 1958
NOT 1958, March 17
NOT Mar. 17, 1958
NOT 1958 Mar.-Aug.

Bulk Dates

Bulks dates are used to denote a smaller span of time, within a larger inclusive date range. This is important to note when the majority of records in a collection, series, subseries, or folder fall within a smaller span of time, making the inclusive date range misleading. For example, if a collection’s inclusive dates range from 1895 to 1958, but there is only one document from 1895, researchers will want to know that there are not many 19th century records in the collection. The collection dates will look like this:

1895-1958, bulk 1925-1958

Estimated Dates

Estimated dates are used when records are not dated, but processors are able to determine an approximate date of creation based on other information in the collection or general knowledge of the subject and/or time period. Estimated dates can be date ranges or single dates, and can be recorded in any of the following ways:

approximately 1952-1978
circa 1970-1979
probably 1967
approximately 1967
before 1967    after 1967 January 5
1967 or 1968
circa 1975 August

Circa and other words used to denote an approximate date should be written out in full. NEVER as c. or ca., for example.

Other Date Forms

In the case of other date forms (Quaker dates, Hebrew dates, et cetera), processors should record the date as found in the folder title, and record the Gregorian equivalent in the date field. A note regarding the dates should also be included in the scope and contents note.

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