Processing a Box: First Steps

In this post, I’ll talk about what happens in the life of a collection after it’s moved to our offices.

After the project archivist surveyed the IPA Collection, he developed a processing plan. In it, he arranged the large banker’s boxes into rough “series”: similar or related materials that should be kept together and processed as a group.

Generally, archivists try to keep together material that comes to us already arranged in an order or filing system. This principle, called “original order,” supports archivists and researchers in establishing context for the materials. For example, a letter may include an abbreviation like S.W.P.C., but no explanation of what this abbreviation stands for; a letter next to it in a folder may explain that S.W.P.C. stands for “Smaller War Plants Corporation,” a group focusing on military manufacturing during World War II. If these materials were not kept together in the final arrangement, this information would be lost. Archivists often process all the boxes in a series before moving to the next series, to maintain a sense of the context of the material.

When we process a box, the first thing we do is open it and make a quick assessment of its contents. Boxes can be neatly arranged and clearly marked:

Or, they can contain a wide array of materials in no discernable order:

We take note of whether the contents are arranged in folders, because that lets us know whether the materials have already been sorted into groups; if the box has mostly loose material, we may have to create a filing system to organize them. The box below is similar to many boxes in this collection, in that it contains groups of materials wrapped in parcels and tied with string, along with materials grouped in folders:

For a box like this, we will make sure to maintain the groupings marked by the folders and parcel wrappings. These wrappings show us how the IPA used the materials, because they indicate what goes with what.

We also take note of what kinds of material are present in the box. Are there books? Bound reports? Newspapers? Photographs? Typed or handwritten letters? Are there large or oversized materials, such as maps, folded in among the papers? Each of these formats should be stored differently, and the IPA Collection contains all of these formats and many more. Once we have a handle on what we’re dealing with, we can proceed to the next steps.