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Archival Processing: Surveying

A guide to processing archival collections


Surveying the collection will give you a broad overview of the contents and aid in the planning of processing activities. The Surveying and Processing Plan Worksheet can help you with these tasks, especially for larger collections. Make sure to work with the Processing Archivist during the planning process.

Examine Existing Descriptive Information and/or Access Tools

You should gather all known descriptive information and/or access tools available for the collection being surveyed (check with the Curator/Archivist, physical case file, and in Archivists’ Toolkit). These may include: donor agreement forms, accession records, catalog records, preliminary inventories, finding aids, vendor’s description, etc. Look for and take notes on the following types of information, often included in administrative documents (the curator will likely have much of this information):

  • Where did the collection originate? Who created the documents?
  • Was the collection donated or purchased?
  • Who donated/sold the collection?
  • When was the collection acquired?
  • Why was the collection acquired?
  • What is included in the collection?
  • How much was included, size-wise? (linear footage, container count, size of digital files)
  • What types of material are included?
  • Is there biographical information on the creator available?
  • Are there any restrictions on access, usage, or copyright?
  • What are the primary subjects documented?
  • Where are is the collection physically located?

Any or all of this information will aid in surveying. While some information, if identified, can be used to automatically populate certain survey fields (i.e. donor, collection or accession number(s), collection creator, etc.), other information will generally assist in the completion of a more thorough survey. For example, an existing description of what was donated or a preliminary collection inventory will help determine whether you have located the collection in its entirety or, conversely, that components of the collection are missing. Biographical and historical information identified on the collection creator will later help in writing the biographical/historical note.

Examine the Physical Collection

Do not move anything yet! In this step processors simply review the physical collection, making sure that the entire collection is accounted for.

  • Count boxes and volumes (books)/items, comparing what you find to what the existing documentation suggests should exist. If there seems to be more or less associated with the physical collection than recorded in the existing documentation, processors should immediately consult with a Curator/Archivist.
  • Review the existing container labels. There may be useful information regarding container contents, accessions or donors, the type and quantity of materials in the containers, etc. This information may prove helpful in establishing the collection’s arrangement.
  • Open containers to review the contents, noting whether existing container labels are accurate. Compare and contrast what you find in the collection with what was identified in the processing plan documents. Make note of any discrepancies and make note of additional materials, topics, genres, or highlights identified. If anything appears to be missing, processors should contact their supervisor immediately.
  • Identify existing groups of related materials; these groups will likely become the basis for the collection arrangement.
  • Place new, temporary labels on boxes, indicating to which group of records the contents appear to belong.
  • Using the information from the new box labels, establish a list of potential series and subseries into which the collection may be arranged. Compare the list with what was identified in the processing plan. If the two lists match, processors may notify their supervisor that they are ready to move on to the next step. If the lists do not match, processors should notify their supervisor for further discussion.


► Surveying is part of a long term collections management strategy - a collection surveyed today, may not be processed for many years. Leave NO worksheet field empty! If a particular field is not necessary or does not apply to a particular collection, write "n/a" in the blank space. It will be clear, later, that the field was left blank intentionally. Future archivists will be confident that the survey is complete and does not need to be repeated.

► When reviewing the collection, careful attention should be paid to container labeling. Container labeling can be very helpful in understanding the collection. Be sure to compare containers and their contents with existing descriptive information, noting if labels are accurate, if anything is missing, or if additional material exists.

► Much of this information is administrative and may be obtained from existing descriptive documentation. The descriptive documentation should be compared and contrasted with the physical collection and vice versa; surveyors should record discrepancies in the survey.

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