Taking Care of Physical Collections


In honor of Ask an Archivist day, we wanted to give you a step by step of how we handle the donation of a physical collection. Now, some collections contain both physical and digital items, but we can handle the more complicated digital donations next week.

Step 1: Get a deed of gift

The donor signs a legal form that transfers ownership to the institution. Within the document, the donor can provide an inventory and show how much copyright control s/he wants to keep.

Why do we do this? It proves that the owner wanted to transfer the materials.

Step 2: Immediately rebox

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We transfer the papers/items into acid-free boxes. Over the years, we have received items kept in acidic boxes and even a mothballed suitcase. Moving these items to an acid-free box ensures that the items will not degrade further and/or bring paper-eating insects into our department.

Step 3: Ascertain what is in the collection

To understand the collection, we need to know what is in it. We spend a bit of time looking through the boxes. We need to know the different formats (paper, photographs, negatives, audio, video, memorabilia). We also check out the condition of everything. For example, is there water damage? Is there rust? Are there any silver fish? This helps us determine what supplies we need, what might need extra attention, and a rough idea of how to organize it.

Step 4: Process the collection


This is when we organize and preserve the collection. Here are a few of the things that we do during the most time-consuming part of this process.


– Remove rubberbands, paper clips, rusty staples.

– Unfold paper.

– Weed the collection of multiple copies, tax information, or items not related to the focus of the collection.

– Place like-minded items in acid-free folders — or, if already well-organized, transfer into an acid-free folder.

– Label the folders.


– Organize photographs.

– Place in protective mylar sleeves if needed, or in acid-free envelopes.

– Place slides and negatives in media-specific mylar sleeves.


-Ascertain if the audio and video are good candidates for digitization. Then, move forward with a digital preservation workflow.


-This requires a digital preservation workflow, which we will address next week.

Step 5: Organize the folders

We organize them into “Series” — in other words, categories. The series can be organized by subject, date, or type of media. Folders within each series can be organized alphabetically by title or subject or arranged chronologically. It depends on the collection and the archivist.

Step 6: Create a finding aid

Now that everything is organized in boxes, we create an inventory down to the folder level. Then, we write other information that spells out if there are any restrictions, who donated it, citation information, among other information, and most importantly a biographical/historical note. All of this information comprises the finding aid. We place our finding aids online, so people can find the our collections.

We use two online platforms to present our findings aids: one is through Texas Archival Resources Online and the other is ArchivesSpace, which is still in Beta testing for us.

Below is what a finding aid looks like in ArchivesSpace.

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That’s our process. Other institutions might have different workflows, but most archival institutions follow the same process for handling physical materials.

One thought on “Taking Care of Physical Collections

  1. Pingback: Taking Care of Digital Collections | What's in Woodson

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