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Archival Processing: Intellectual Arrangement

A guide to processing archival collections

Intellectual Arrangement

Intellectual arrangement applies to the information contained in an archival collection, and necessitates an understanding of the intellectual relationship(s) between the many disparate papers in a collection. To establish an intellectual arrangement, collections are divided into series and subseries.

A series is nothing more than "a group of similar records that are arranged according to a filing system and that are related as the result of being created, received, or used in the same activity". A subseries is simply a series within a series.

Processors working with a processing plan will have a preliminary list of series and subseries, identified during the survey phase. The list will likely evolve as processors examine the collection more closely. If processors believe the collection ought to be arranged in a way that deviates from the processing plan, they must consult with their supervisor before moving on to the next step.

Processors should take into consideration the principles of provenance and original order in the establishment of series and subseries.


Provenance is a fundamental principle of archives, referring to the individual, family, or organization that created or received the items in a collection. The principle of provenance dictates that records of different origins (provenance) be kept separate to preserve their context.

First, taking this principle into consideration, identify if more than one person or entity created the collection. Processors may decide to use different creators as a basis for the intellectual arrangement, establishing series named for and containing the different creators’ papers.

Because archival collections usually contain papers created by many people in addition to the predominant creator, do not establish provenance based series unless absolutely warranted - there should be clear evidence of multiple creators that produced records independent from each other.

For example, third party correspondence should not be considered in the creation of a provenance based series. In a majority of cases, third party correspondence will remain with the body of correspondence in which it was originally filed, regardless of the creator. Conversely, several individual bodies of correspondence, each received and/or written by several different people may result in the creation of provenance based series.

Family papers are frequently arranged into provenance based series. The papers produced by the various family members serve as the basis of the collection’s overall arrangement.

Original Order

Original order, another fundamental principle of archives, is defined as the organization and sequence of records established by the creator of the records.

Maintaining records in original order serves two purposes. First, it preserves existing relationships and evidential significance that can be inferred from the context of the records. Second, it exploits the record creator's mechanisms to access the records, saving the archives the work of creating new access tools.

Processors should identify if there are useful, existing groups of related records arranged according to a meaningful scheme. Original order, at the intellectual stage, is important because it indicates the way the creator thought about, maintained, and used their records. Original order, if it is both meaningful and useful, will be retained. Not only is this sound archival processing, but it will make processing easier. If there is no original order, or the existing original order is not conducive to research, processors, in consultation with their supervisor, will need to impose a new arrangement .


Do not overcomplicate the collection’s hierarchy. The easiest and most apparent solution is usually the correct one.

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