Archival Arrangement: Ensuring Access to Materials

by Moya K. Mason


Throughout history, attempts were made to record culture by people who saw the importance of preserving the knowledge and documents of their own civilization. Preserving for posterity: that desire to chronicle the essence of collective creation, craftsmanship, and enterprise found in the daily struggle to survive on this planet. The degree and nature of this activity varied as did the civilizations, and ranged from simple prehistoric cave paintings to more sophisticated systems evidenced on ancient cuneiform tablets of the Sumerians. Many of those records were found in the ruins of the ancient Mycenaean palace at Pylos and they, like a voice from the past, transmitted a great deal of information about their culture. For instance, the tablets were inscribed with legal records and business inventories, and contained inventories of human chattels, or slaves.

Of course, a lot has changed since those ancient people walked the earth, but there is still a need and a desire to create and manage good record keeping systems, especially for governments. The National Archives of Canada contains records from as far back as the 1700s, and by law, controls when and if governmental and ministerial records are destroyed (National Archives Website). Archives are an integral part of business and government since documents are continually generated and decisions of what to preserve are paramount. In 1841, when the French historian Natalis de Wailly developed his idea of fonds d'archives, the basic ideology of archival science was born. His principles still form the traditional foundation for modern archival work (Duchein 1983, 66). de Wailly believed that leaving documents, photographs, and other objects in the order they were found, as much as possible, would facilitate a deeper understanding of their inherent meanings. In other words, he did not advocate the rewriting of history. It would be like taking all the old cookbooks out of personal family collections and compiling them in an artificial arrangement, instead of permitting the volumes to tell their part of a family's history. Having recently gone through a grandmother's books, personal papers, photographs, and mementos, it was interesting to see what types of items she had inserted in her cookbooks. I found a photograph of a dinner party between the pages of a recipe for beef stroganoff. I also found a yellowed invitation to a wedding stuck to the page for a champagne punch. I wondered if my grandmother had hosted the bridal shower and this was one of things she had made for the party. It was also wonderful to see the food-stained pages of her favourite recipes. They had an impact on me and brought back visions of her kitchen and dinner-time conversations.

The greatest achievement of de Wailly was two-fold: 1. he advocated for the intrinsic natural order of materials to remain unchanged and, 2. he demanded respect for the creator (Holmes 1964, 21). Previously, it was typical to sort archival materials into "subject, by topic, by place, and so on, which meant that the natural order in which the documents were created was broken" (Duchein 1983,65). This essay will consider the traditional principles and practices of archival arrangement in relation to their strengths and weaknesses in the promotion of archival goals. In addition, the future effects of electronic information technologies and the possibility of a paperless society will be discussed in connection with archival practices.

Respect des Fonds or Principe de Provenance: The Basics

Archival materials are not catalogued by subject like library books, since archival groups often have a myriad of subject categories (Manual 1994,35). Instead, as explained in A Manual for Small Archives:

Whenever possible, the records in each archival accession are arranged and filed in the order they were originally created, maintained, and used, not according to any artificial or arbitrary arrangement (Manual 1994,35).

In addition, archival materials are arranged according to respect des fonds or provenance, meaning that archivists respect the person or office that generated and used the records (Manual 1994,35). There is an individualized aspect of each set of materials that must remain distinct. For example, if London Life Insurance decided to close tomorrow, its archival documents would not be mixed in with those from another defunct or obsolete insurance company. Just as one family's personal papers should not be interfiled with another's simply because they lived during the same era or lived in the same neighbourhood. As Heather MacNeil writes in Archival Theory and Practice: Between Two Paradigms:

In asserting the principle of respect des fonds as the only sound basis for archival arrangement, early archival theorists were asserting the primary nature of archives as evidence and, by extension, the archivist's primary obligation to protect the integrity of evidence in the methods used to treat archival fonds . . . we protect archives not only from physical deterioration but also from loss of meaning, due to their accidental or deliberate eradication from their context (MacNeil 1994,9).

Original order is the second important principle on which archivists base their arrangement of items (Manual 1994,35). What an archive does not need is an employee with a compulsion for perfect order. Documents usually come to an archive in the order in which they were used and proved useful over a series of years for an institution, a government agency, business, or family. As Oliver W. Holmes wrote in his infamous article some thirty years ago, "the archivist preserves and uses the arrangement given the records by the agency of origin on theory that this arrangement had logic and meaning to the agency" (Holmes 1964,21). Like libraries, archives are interested in providing the public with access to most of the items they house in their collections and try to provide some valuable insight in the process.

Archivists are not simply allowing access to the information contained within the many acid-free boxes sitting on shelves. They also allow patrons to see the fashion in which a particular company or administration arranged the documents that made up the fabric of its existence. Consequently, the rule of thumb for archivists is "when in doubt, leave it alone," particularly when dealing with institutional or governmental records (Manual 1994,35). From a kind of serendipitous inspection, one can get a good indication of how the daily operations were handled, including information about those in charge, the kinds of employees they hired, the levels of authority, and an historical overview of policy. Certainly, much more than these few elements may be collected by an astute observer, but the main point is that because no arbitrary order is given by an outside person, the knowledge is there for those who want to look for it. If you want to find out about a person and how they live, visit their home. By first sending in an organizational expert or housekeeper to clean and rearrange, you are recreating the reality of that existence and simply turn it into a generic facade that reflects your own nature.

If one goal of an archive is to preserve non-current information that has continuing value to those who produced it and as a source of historical material, then these two fundamental principles of archival science must be considered its greatest strengths. The dual forces of provenance and original order have a huge impact on the preservation of history and should become the rationale for why an archive continues to operate, and the justification for new ones. As Adrian Cunningham, Personal Records Archivist at the National Library of Australian emphasizes:

By professionally managing good record keeping systems, government and corporate archivists play a vital role in preserving the corporate memory of their organizations. This underpins corporate efficiency, governance, and accountability (Cunningham 1997).

Whether these principles are followed by all archivists is not the question, what is important is that since they are so entrenched in the science of archives (Duchein 1983,66), their application should be insisted upon by the profession. They should be followed and heralded by working archivists, but as Oliver W. Holmes points out, that may be easy to say, not always so easy to do, especially if the terminology of the levels of arrangement are misunderstood (Holmes, 1964,23).

Levels of Arrangement: The Basic Building Blocks of Archives

Traditionally there have been five levels of arrangement used to organize any archival collection, with an hierarchical aspect running from the top level, down. Throughout the process, the archivist will need to take notes, use separation sheets, and inventory lists to keep track of the details (Manual 1994,40). All of these will later help in the development of finding aids which allow access to the materials. The first level is the archives or repository/depository, having the broad physical divisions of the entire holdings always in mind. Secondly, is the record/manuscript group and the subgroups. These are also called fonds, and are the broadest levels stipulated for a particular collection. For public materials, a record group would be something like a department, such as Environment Canada, having as one of its subgroups, the Canadian Ice Service. For manuscript groups, an example would be the Kennedy Family Papers, with John F. Kennedy's papers as one of its subgroups.

Next in the pyramid is series and subseries, which seems to be at the core of the terminology problem that will be discussed later. As A Manual for Small Archives defines the level, "a series is simply a grouping of records according to their use, their physical type, or various subjects;" crucial, since it is this level that most often reflects the daily use of the documents and gives them their individual flavour (Manual 1994,38). For this reason, the arrangement should follow a natural flow based on function, not subject or chronology, such as a map series, scrapbooks, or legal documents (Manual 1994,38). Most importantly, the archivist must look for the boundaries that keep series separate entities, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Arrangement at the filing level is categorization of the series into unit components, many of which will be obvious and already in existing folders. Finally, at the lowest level, archivists will parse down to the document or item level, dealing with individual documents of such media forms as journals, videocassettes, or photographs. These may be filed in a preconceived order that best suits the organization of particular files, but the extent to which this is done seems to depend on how often the archivist thinks the items will be used in reference work. For instance, if there is a very important document in a collection, which the public may be quite interested in, then its exact location is needed. As Ericksen and Shuster acknowledge, "ultimately, an archives' value depends on which needs it fulfills for users" (Ericksen 1995,33).

The five basic levels of arrangement should be carried out from largest to smallest, or from record group to item. Arrangement "is the basic activity of an archival establishment. All other internal activities depend upon its proper accomplishment" (Holmes 1964,41). If followed diligently and correctly, anything can be archived, no matter how big or how small, but is always dependent upon the archivist knowing something about the history of the organization or family (Holmes 1964,29).

Levels of Arrangement: Problems with Theory and Terminology, The Weak Links

The strength of provenance and original ordering are obvious in the promotion of archival goals and the development of the profession. In addition, the importance of arrangement cannot be understated, since the process is based on systematic methodology to reach an outcome. However, within the very inner reaches of those components that form the best parts of archival science, a weak link can be found: theory does not equate with routine practice (MacNeil 1994,7). One of the problems is with terminology.

In Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect des Fonds in Archival Science, Michel Duchein writes that different countries have different ideas concerning the arrangement of fonds, based on vocabulary nuances. For example, series means different things to the English and French, as does the word fonds (Duchein 1983,80). If archivists are unable to agree on meaning, it would lead one to believe they are not arranging materials in an identical fashion. Duchein calls for more precise definitions of basic terms so that misunderstandings can be avoided (Duchein 1983,81).

If many archivists are finding terminology and the theory behind archival science burdensome, then obviously there will be problems with application. There may be an element of the profession who believe that five levels of arrangement are simply too many and the process should stop with series or subseries. This would save money, but what a series is to one archivist may be a fond to another. The vocabulary should be clearly defined. That way, there can be common ground for archivists, no matter what country they work in.

How to Deal with Electronic Sources

Currently, large national debts are one of the commonalities for governments all over the world. There is intense pressure to reduce spending so that future generations will not be burdened by financial hardships. Some of the ways that government and big business are trying to cope with their problems is to cut back, downsize, and privatize some of their operations. For instance, the privatization of government printing services in Canada sounded an end to an era and the beginning of an onslaught of electronic documentation as a way to save printing costs and postage. Electronic information technology will have a great impact on archives, especially in relation to retention periods and the archival value of records (National Archives). Archivists will no longer retain a physical entity or hardcopy that needs to be sorted, and "archival organizations no longer have to assume physical custody of records in order to be able to fulfil the archival role of controlling and defending the records" (Cunningham, 1997).

Nevertheless, the proliferation of 'modern gadgetry' has and will continue to allow for better access and manipulability of materials through new software packages and keyword searching (Abraham 1991,374). In addition, there is the reality that original order is difficult to identify in cyberspace, where files are given strange names and uploaded in a random manner (MacNeil 1994, 10). In The Australian Series System, Clive Smith speculates that a digitized item could replace the description of record series, and says further:

In such an environment, the record series either will also become a virtual entity, evident only from a commonality of control attributes, such as recording agency, function, document type, or will become synonymous with the system itself (Smith 1996,92).

The emergence of digitized archival databases could undermine the very foundation of archival work. If the technology really takes hold, it will undoubtedly mean that archives will not have to worry about continually expanding their storage space. But will it?

Although there are some governmental departments advancing the goal of ten percent paper/ninety percent digital, paper will never be completely usurped by any other medium. In Paperless Future: Part Fact, Part Fantasy, Guy Robertson says that paper and printer suppliers insist that those corporations, either public or private, which have the most computerized systems, are still their best customers (Robertson 1996). People simply have a desire and need to use paper, in part for security - preferring to have a hardcopy that can be filed away, instead of completely relying on electronic gadgetry.

David Bearman and associates at the University of Pittsburgh are working on a project to overcome some of the functional fragilities of digitized records, and to identify how to "create, capture, and manage authentic electronic records of business and organizational activity" (Cunningham 1997). With new data modeling, retrieval time increased, and user access guaranteed, the systematic methodology will be in place. Essentially, they are working on the descriptive information or metadata which is needed to incorporate into electronic record systems. With these referential specifications, Bearman says that "there will then exist the capacity for virtual archives - that is, archives which exist only in cyberspace" (Cunningham 1997). Still, one worries about all the money spent on technology that could be obsolete in a relatively short space of time. The fragility of digital information is problematic and will not be solved in the near future.

Conclusion: The Future of Archives, Will it be Quantity or Quality?

Libraries and librarians have had to come together, laying aside some of their local idiosyncrasies in cataloguing especially, and work together to build an exceptionally diverse interlibrary loan system for their patrons. Archivists must also band together to develop professional associations that provide a voice for themselves and work for a common cause. Towards this end, it would be helpful if they used a common procedure for the description of archival documents, such as Archival and Manuscripts Control (AMC) or RAD, to bring about a universal standard for bibliographic control of archival materials (Abraham 1991,375). This would go a long way in the ratification of the profession, while increasing the public's access to archived materials. Furthermore, there needs to be something specified about appraisal value, or the cost of doing work in an archives.

Many archivists do not want to involve themselves in cost analysis because they feel it demeans the profession, pointing out that those studies do not necessarily measure quality work. For them, preservation has nothing to do with money and believe it is hard to measure if quality work has been done (Ericksen 1995,36). This ties in with Heather MacNeil's comments about how the lack of professional consensus on everything from standards to description is undermining the very core principle of respect des fonds, as well as the profession itself (MacNeil 1994,8). A solidarity of sorts is needed. With the inherent differences in ideology that exist and the belief that electronic technologies will supplant the usefulness of the "Holmesian five-levels" of arrangement, Terry Abraham says that archival practices are in a state of flux (Abraham 1991,377). However, we must not forget that:

The collective memory of a nation is indispensable if we want to understand who we are, to understand where we have come from, to better comprehend where we find ourselves and where we are going. Archives are the documentary base of this collective memory, which itself is so important to maintain and strengthen national identity .. . (Translated extract from an editorial in Avui, a Catalan daily newspaper, provided by Adrian Cunningham, 1997).

Maybe it is a good time for archivists to thoroughly air their different views of the common practices and theoretical principles that form the important building blocks for the archiving of materials. If differences in language interpretation have historically meant that archivists have done things differently from each other, sometimes unknowingly, then now is the time to demand cooperation. Debate is not a bad thing, as long as there is tolerance for others' ideas and a willingness to consider change. Integral to this process is the understanding that some of the problems are coming from outside sources in the form of "inadequate resources, authority, education, and lack of training" (MacNeil 1994,16), and an ignorance and fear of what changes will come with massive digitization. As the profession moves into the 21st century, archivists will have to fight for survival in this world of cutbacks and information technology. The outcome does not have to be bad, but it will be different. Archivists must remember that we are counting on them to stick together.

Related Papers

Bibliographic Control for Archival Materials
Archival Descriptive Process: Our Quest for Standardization
Outreach Programs: Can They Really Help Archives?
Glynn A. Leyshon Fonds Finding Aid


A Manual for Small Archives. Vancouver, 1988, revised 1994.

Abraham, Terry. Oliver W. Holmes Revisited: Five Levels of Arrangement and Description in Practice. American Archivist, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Summer, 1991), pp. 370-377.

Cunningham, Adrian. Ensuring Essential Evidence: Changing Archival and Records Management Practices in the Electronic Recordkeeping Era. Provenance the Web Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring 1997).

Duchein, Michel. Theoretical Principles and Practical Problems of Respect des fonds in Archival Science. Archivaria, No. 16 (Summer 1983), pp. 64-82.

Ericksen, Paul, and Robert Shuster. Beneficial Shocks: The Place of Processing-Cost Analysis in Archival Administration. American Archivist, Vol. 58, No. 1 (Winter 1995), pp. 32-52.

Holmes, Oliver W. Archival Arrangement: Five Different Operations at Five Different Levels. American Archivist, Vol. 27 (January 1964), pp. 21-41.

MacNeil, Heather. Archival Theory and Practise: Between Two Paradigms. Archivaria, No. 37 (Fall 1994), pp. 6-20.

National Archives of Canada. Management of Government Archives. GRDS Bulletin, July 5, 1996.

Robertson, Guy. Paperless Future: Part Fact, Part Fantasy. Provenance the Web Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 3 (July 1996).

Smith, Clive. 1996. The Australian Series System. Archivaria, No. 40, pp. 86-93.

Zelenyj, Dan. Counterpoint: Linchpin Imperilled: The Functional Interpretation of Series and the Principle of Respect des Fonds. Archivaria, No. 42 (Fall 1996), pp. 126-136.

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