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Starting From Scratch: Creating Synagogue Archives | Publications

IV. Organization & Procedures

This section discusses the nuts and bolts of archival work: accessioning, arrangement and description of archival collections. These are tasks the archivist must perform after the collections have arrived and before they are made available to researchers. Collections should be made available for research use only after they have been fully processed: i.e., after they have been accessioned, arranged and described. Allowing access to unprocessed collections poses security risks and may disturb the original order and structure of the collection.

This section will discuss the broad basics of accessioning, arrangement and description. As with appraisal, much has been written on these topics and the reader is encouraged to study and learn more. The appendix contains a select bibliography of additional readings.


Accessioning is the process of transferring records to the physical custody and legal control of an archival institution. When documents arrive at an archives they must first be accessioned. Accessioning begins by entering important information about the donation into an accession register. The register should note the date of receipt, the donor, the size of the donation, and a brief description of the donation's contents.

The accession register should be kept as a yearly log, listing each accession as it arrives. Accessions should be listed consecutively, each having its own number: i.e., 94/1 would be the first accession of 1994, 94/2 the second, etc.

In addition to the log entry, a separate accession form should be filled out noting in detail specific information about the accession. The accession form provides a brief narrative description of the collection that the archivist can keep on file and consult for future reference. The accession form should contain the following: the collection's title; a brief description of contents; present arrangement, if any; physical condition; size; donor; restrictions; and, most importantly, its location in the archives.

After the accession form has been completed the archivist should file this form for future reference. Attached to the accession form should be any relevant correspondence, notes, or donor agreements compiled during the donation process.

Donor agreements are very important. They transfer legal title of the collection to the archives and explain, formally and in detail, the exact terms of the donation, including restrictions. Every accession, particularly donations from persons or organizations outside the synagogue, should have a completed and signed donor agreement. All donor agreements should be filled out and signed by the donor and by an appointed representative of the archives. A copy of the agreement should be given to the donor with the original kept on file in the archives. Donor agreements prevent confusion between the archives and the donor concerning details of the donation and can provide legal protection for the archives in the event of a disagreement or misunderstanding.

After accessioning, the collection should be prepared for storage. It is advisable to have separate storage areas for processed and unprocessed collections.

When preparing unprocessed collections for storage little needs to be done other than clearly labelling all the boxes. No arrangement or description of the collection is necessary at this time, other than compiling a brief summary of contents for the accession form. If new boxes are needed, the collection should be transferred without disturbing its existing arrangement. When the collection is shelved the location should be noted and written on the accession form. It is also advisable to maintain a separate locator file which lists the name and location of all collections accessioned into the archives.

This completes the process of accessioning. It is simple yet necessary. It provides organization and record keeping for necessary control over all materials entering the archives.


Arrangement is the archival process of organizing documentary materials in accordance with archival principles.

There are two main types of collections found in archives: organizational records (records of an organization or group, be they the records of a synagogue, lodge, community organization, etc.); and personal papers (papers and records of an individual), also called manuscript collections.

Most collections found in congregational archives are organizational records. Most congregations collect only the records of their congregation, although some congregational archives might also have collections of personal papers, particularly of the rabbi. The arrangement of the two types of collections differs slightly. Both will be discussed here.

Organizational Records

The arrangement of organizational records is based on two archival principles: provenance and original order. Provenance is the archival principle that records created by one recordskeeping unit should not be intermixed with those of any other. Provenance is based on the idea of maintaining the link between the records and the records creator. This is done by preserving the original structure and organization of the records as established by the records creator. This maintains the structural and historical integrity of the collection and allows the researcher to view the records in the context in which they were created and used.10

In other words, separate and distinct groups of records within a larger collection of organizational records should be kept separate and distinct. This distinction is based on separating the records according to the department or unit within the organization that created them. For example, the archival records of a congregation should be subdivided based on the different departments that make up that congregation: i.e., the minutes of the board of trustees should be kept and filed as a distinct unit; the records of the Sisterhood should be kept and filed as a distinct unit; the records of the religious school should be kept and filed as a distinct unit, and so on.

These separate groups of records within a collection (i.e., for the synagogue board, Sisterhood and religious school) are called series. Series of records are a body of records arranged in accordance with a unified filing system or maintained by the records creator as a unit because of some relationship arising out of their creation, receipt, or use.

In establishing series, it might be helpful to develop a flow chart or organizational tree of the congregation's operating structure. This will help identify different departments within the congregation and distinguish the record creating agencies. The records of each of department will constitute a separate series of records in the congregation's archives.

Original order is the second component (after provenance) in arranging organizational records. Original order is the archival principle that, whenever possible, all records within a series should be maintained in the order in which they were placed by the organization, individual, or family that created them. This order can take many forms. In many instances it might be chronological. For example, the minutes of the board of trustees most likely will be arranged chronologically, from the earliest date to the latest.

Other arrangements are possible. For example, the original order of correspondence files might be alphabetical. Some series might be arranged by subject headings. Whatever the original order of the records, unless it is indecipherable or unusable, it should always be maintained when arranging and filing the records in the archives.

As with provenance, maintaining original order of a collection preserves the integrity of the records as established by the records creator and allows the user to view the records in their original context.

If, and only if, the original order is unusable should a new order be imposed on the collection by the archivist. If a new order is installed it should be created using the simplest and most convenient method(s) possible. Imposing a new order should be done only as a last resort and only when necessary.11 If a new order other than the original order is imposed on a collection the reasons for this should be noted and explained in detail in any finding aids created for the collection.

Organizational records are usually very large. As a result, it is not feasible to attempt to arrange or account for every piece of paper in the collection. To do so would take an inordinate amount of time and be cost prohibitive. For large collections of organizational records arrangement is performed only to the folder level. This means that the archivist makes no attempt to arrange or identify individual items inside a folder. The arrangement is kept and checked only to the folder level.

For smaller collections arrangement may be done to the item level. In most cases, however, for organizational records folder level arrangement is all that is required.

Manuscript Collections

The arrangement of manuscript collections, sometimes called personal papers, differs from the arrangement of organizational records in that the principles of provenance and original order do not always apply. This is due to the nature of personal papers; they reflect the order, or disorder, of the person collecting them. Personal papers are personal; they may come to an archives in many levels of arrangement, or, with no arrangement at all. As a result, the processor of personal papers must be more adaptive than the processor of organizational records, which are usually in a specific order or have an order that can be readily identified and recreated.

One commentator has written, "there is no one way to arrange [personal papers]. Archivists try to achieve what they perceive is the arrangement that will best show respect for the origin and integrity of the papers while considering the needs of the users. Usually the simpler the arrangement, the greater its usefulness."12

As a result, the arrangement of personal papers is often more time consuming than for organizational records. Without an obvious provenance the archivist may have to create series or groupings of records where none previously existed. Also, because personal papers are more disorganized than organizational records, they often require meticulous attention.

Personal papers are frequently arranged to the item level. This means that individual letters or documents within a folder are arranged by the archivist in some way, usually alphabetically or chronologically. Of course, as with organizational records, if a collection of personal papers is very large this may be impossible. Arranging any collection to the item level is very labor intensive work.

If at all possible, the processor of personal papers should rely on provenance and original order in arranging personal papers. When the existing arrangement is unusable finding a level of processing that will provide the best access to the materials is one of the archivist's greatest challenges. This ability comes from experience, familiarity with arrangement techniques, knowledge of the records and, perhaps most importantly, self confidence.

The purpose of all arrangement is research use: making the records available for research use by placing them in a simple and precise order where the records can be easily identified and accessed upon demand.

Lacking an identifiable provenance and original order there are four accepted methods of arranging manuscript collections. First is separating and grouping series by type of material: i.e., correspondence, minutes, sermons, etc. Second is establishing chronological series: by time periods or eras. Third is alphabetical arrangement of the records within a series, used most often in a correspondence series. Fourth is a mixture of any or all of these methods.

One archival manual states that "selection of the appropriate method [of arrangement] will suggest itself on the basis of the apparent order as received, the most useful order for search and retrieval of information, or the simplest means of acquiring control over the papers. Archivists are responsible for deciding which arrangement is most appropriate at each level and making sure that arrangement makes sense in relation to the other levels and parts and to the whole."13

If arranging manuscript collections sounds vague and confusing, it sometimes is. Try first to apply the theories of provenance and original order. If this is impossible then rely on common sense and good judgment. Experience can be the best teacher in arranging manuscript collections. Read and study archival texts; see how other archives and archivists arrange their manuscript collections; ask the researchers who use the collections for their opinions. Learn what does, and does not, work. Seek out the most clear and simple arrangement possible. Remember, no arrangement is final; any arrangement can be redone if a new or better way is discovered.


Description is the process of establishing intellectual control over holdings of an archival institution through preparation of finding aids. A finding aid is a description from any source that provides information about the contents and nature of documentary materials.

After a collection has been arranged the archivist must make a record or listing of that collection's contents. This process is called description, i.e., gaining intellectual control over the collection: "know[ing] what [you] have, what it contains, and where it is."14 Without effective description all archival work is irrelevant. No matter how well a collection is arranged, if the material in that collection cannot be located and made available for use it is worthless.

Description is where the archivist has the opportunity to make his or her most important contribution. It is where the archivist can use his or her creativity and communication skills to bring out the full research potential of a collection. The archivist knows more about the collections than anyone else. The archivist arranges the collections and writes the finding aids. Through this knowledge the archivist becomes a conduit for the transfer of the information within a collection to the user of that collection. It is vital that the archivist write out this knowledge in a finding aid. The archivist should strive to write finding aids that will be clear and helpful long after he or she is no longer at the archives to oversee the use of its collections.

Writing finding aids is for the archivist what writing books and articles is for the historian. It is the presentation of an organized series of facts, information and analysis based on intensive research in a specific area. Without clear and effective finding aids any collection of records is worthless.

For both organizational records and personal papers the standard form of description is the inventory. The inventory is a detailed description of a collection, providing narrative description as well as a box and folder listing of its contents. The standard inventory has four sections:

  • Introduction
  • Biographical Sketch or Institutional History
  • Scope and Content note
  • Box and Folder list

A well written inventory will provide the user of the collection with quick and easy access to its contents, provide background information on its history and origins, and analyze its research potential. Many examples of inventories can be found on this website. The Introduction contains statistics and information on the size and background of the collection. It lists the donor(s), any restrictions on use, the existence of property or literary rights, and instructions on proper citations to be used when material from the collection is used in writings or publications.

The Biographical Sketch/Institutional History is a brief narrative of the life or history of the person or organization represented in the collection. This sketch should be one or two pages in length and list the highlights of the life or history of the subject. The sketch should be factual and unbiased; it should not contain analysis or conjecture. It should be a simple, fact based statement that can be used for ready reference of key dates or information.

The Scope and Content note is a narrative description of the collection's contents that, combined with the box and folder list, should enable users of the collection to quickly learn the collection's scope, contents, strengths and weaknesses. In the scope and content note the archivist should write a narrative series by series analysis of the collection, noting strong and weak points, quantities of materials, gaps in holdings and areas of emphasis. The scope and content note is where the archivist has the opportunity to interpret and analyze the collection and reveal to its users the collection's importance, significance and weaknesses. The archivist should use the scope and content note to make a concise, interpretive statement on the research potential and possibilities of the collection.

The Box and Folder list is a box by box, folder by folder listing of the contents of the collection. The box and folder list should show the contents of each box, file by file, listing the headings for each box and folder along with its appropriate span dates. The box and folder list allows the researcher to quickly scan the contents of the collection and select boxes and files for use.

All information presented in an inventory must be accurate. The researcher will rely on the accuracy of the inventory in making decisions about which files to see or even to view the collection at all. The inventory should be written with great care and doubled checked before presenting it to the public.

Small Collections

Many smaller collections, numbering only a few pages, or non-textual items such as photographs, artifacts, tapes, etc., do not require an inventory. For these collections, a catalog card is sufficient or an entry in a computerized data base. Each catalog card or data base entry should list the collection's main entry or title, a brief scope and content note (usually one or two lines), the size of the collection (number of pages, items, etc.), its form (manuscript, tape, photograph, etc.), the donor, the item's location in the archives, and, if desired, cross references to relevant subject or name headings.

The form and style should be the same for every catalog card or data base entry. Development of consistent rules and procedures will facilitate the creation of your finding aids and avoid confusion when using them.15