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Archival Processing: Physical Arrangement

A guide to processing archival collections

Identify a Physical Arrangement

Physical arrangement refers to the physical order of the materials in the collection - how and where they are housed and stored. It is different from the intellectual arrangement, though physical arrangement and intellectual arrangement often mimic one another. Unlike intellectual arrangement, which is determined by the intellectual or informational relationships between records, physical arrangement is determined by the size, shape, type, and housing needs of the various records, regardless of the information provided therein.

As mentioned above, for most collections, the physical and intellectual arrangements will mimic each other. Sometimes, however, they will not. This is especially common in collections with special formats, like photographs and audio/visual materials, or oversize materials. In these cases, the special formats or oversized items will usually be housed together, apart from files, so that shelf space and supplies are not wasted, and in cases where special climate control is required.

Materials removed from the main body of the collection due to size, shape, type, or housing needs will be described in the proper intellectual order, as though not removed. 

Arrange Containers

First, processors should rearrange containers and/or file groups in order to bring together series or subseries that were intellectually identified in the previous step, but were not found physically together.

This will not destroy original order! In fact, it is likely that this step will restore original order that was previously compromised in the process of boxing, storing, and transporting the records to the archival repository.

At this point, processors should not worry about separating materials in need of specialty housing due to size, shape, type, or housing needs. It will be easier to maintain the intellectual order of the collection by keeping related materials together at this point. It will also be easier to provide special housing at the end of processing when processors have a better idea of what types of housing are needed.

Series and Subseries

Taking into consideration the groups of materials identified during both intellectual and physical arrangement, processors will finalize series and subseries, if applicable. Rearrangement is common sense. For example, if processors identify a hundred folders that contain correspondence, it makes sense to create a series called "Correspondence." It is not always this easy; processors should identify common genres and themes throughout the collection as potential ways to organize the collection’s information into series and/or subseries.

Common ways to establish series in archival collections include: Genre groups (types of materials), Topics, Time Frames, Biographical material, Correspondence, Financial records, Government records, Legal documents, Organizational records, School records, et cetera.

In general, there should not be an "Oversized" series. Oversized materials should be cataloged according to their intellectual position within the collection, regardless of size or format. However, these records can (and often should) be physically housed differently than standard paper records. The same can generally be said for digital records. However, photographs and similar formats are frequently stored together due to their preservation concerns and high user demand, so, depending on the collection, a "Photographs" series may be warranted.

Arrange Folders, Volumes, and Other Materials

Next, if the collection is being processed to the folder level, a physical arrangement should be established for files, volumes (books), and other materials, within series and subseries. Whenever possible, all records, no matter the type, should be foldered and housed in containers in order of the intellectual arrangement.

Typically, files are arranged alphabetically by title or chronologically by date of creation, but sometimes arrangement can be more complicated. While folders will be assigned a physical arrangement, processors will generally NOT arrange papers within folders. Files should never be spilt or combined, unless done so to conserve supplies or time, or to aid in description.

Before assigning a final arrangement, it is a good idea to briefly review the contents of the files, provide new housing, as necessary, and create DACS compliant folder/volume titles. Note, too, that a series of completely and consistently labeled files will be easier to physically arrange.

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

Arrange the Series and/or Subseries

Once series and subseries have been established, and folders, volumes, and other items within the series and subseries are arranged, processors should identify a logical arrangement for the series. There are many ways to organize series groups within a collection. For example, series can be arranged by organizational hierarchy, alphabetically by series title, chronologically, in order of informational importance, et cetera. Prior to finalizing the series arrangement, processors should consult with their supervisor.

If a collection houses many types of records, requiring a variety of housing, establishing a system for arranging materials to save shelf space is recommended. One way is to arrange collections in the following order: all record cartons, letter, and/or legal document cases should be shelved first, with files housed within document cases in proper intellectual order; all oversized and/or custom-made containers should be shelved next, placed in order of size and arranged to maximize shelf space (large flat files may be stored separately in the flat files/map cases); all volumes (books) should be shelved together, at the end of the collection. Volumes should rest on their tail or back, depending on size and condition.


Make sure to fold the folders (using the score lines) to allow the contents to sit flat in the box!

Processors can consult Arranging & Describing Archives & Manuscripts for guidance in how to arrange files within series/subseries; physically arrangeing collection materials; or assigning comprehensive collection-level arrangement schemes.

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