How to Proceed: Introduction

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Back to How to Proceed Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. Preparing to Process
3. Arranging
4. Describing
5. Housing and Preserving
6. Finishing the Job



If you process manuscript collections and archival record groups at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this manual is for you. In these pages, you will find discussions of many of the issues you will face during processing. We think this manual answers a number of questions quite well, yet, because of the unique nature of archival materials, there will be many other issues that will arise as you work with a collection. This manual will not replace conversation and consultation with your supervising archivist. Please, be guided by the following:


None of the information contained in this manual is writ in stone, although some procedures are firmer than others. All procedures are grounded in widely accepted archival standards. Some of these standards, however, are either open to interpretation or not tremendously specific in terms of implementation. Therefore, the wiki is a procedures manual's best friend, since it allows for quick and easy revision as our local practices evolve. Should major changes occur, you will be notified. Minor changes will simply be made on the wiki. Please remember that you are always encouraged to make suggestions aimed at improving procedures or this manual itself.

Who We Are

  • SOUTHERN HISTORICAL COLLECTION (SHC). The University began acquiring North Carolina manuscripts in the 1840s, broadened its policies in the 1920s to seek manuscripts from the entire South, and established the SHC in 1930. The SHC is a center for research on the South, with important holdings from all of the southern states. Manuscript collections are private papers of individuals and families or records of private organizations or institutions. The SHC preserves letters, diaries, account books, unpublished writings, photographs, audio and videotapes, and other materials. As a rule, the SHC does not retain collections of museum items or of published works. Researchers who use the SHC's materials include historians and history graduate students from universities all over the world, scholars from a wide variety of other disciplines, family and local historians, and others.
  • RARE BOOK LITERARY AND HISTORICAL PAPERS (RBLHP). RBLHP consists of literary and other manuscripts not relating to the South. Among the holdings are materials relating to George Bernard Shaw, John Ruskin, and other British and American writers of note. Also included are the records of J. M. Dent & Sons, a major British publishing house, and A. P. Watt & Company, the first literary agent firm.
  • UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES (UA). UA is the official repository for the historically valuable, unpublished records of both the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-CH) and the major administrative offices of the UNC System. Records date from the chartering of the university in 1789 to the present and include minute books of the Board of Trustees; correspondence of chancellors, presidents, provosts, and deans; minutes of faculty meetings; files of academic and administrative departments; reports of faculty committees; and records of faculty and student organizations. University departments began sending records to The Wilson Library in the 1940s, originally to the Southern Historical Collection and then to the Manuscripts Department. In 1978, Chancellor Ferebee Taylor officially recognized University Archives and Records Service as the archival repository for the campus.
  • SOUTHERN FOLKLIFE COLLECTION (SFC). The SFC joined the Manuscripts Department in fall 1986. Among the SFC holdings are the renowned John Edwards Memorial Collection and the former UNC-CH Folklore Archives. SFC materials are in many formats--commercial audiodiscs, tapes, and compact discs; field tapes and instant audiodiscs; photographs; films; videotapes--all with an emphasis on the folk music and narrative traditions of the South.

What We Do

Archivists are intermediaries between the creators of collections and the present and future users of those collections. Archivists are charged by society with deciding which portions of the enormous quantity of papers and records become part of the permanent historical record of our culture. Our task is to preserve these materials and to make them accessible to researchers who study and tell the stories of our past. The raw materials of history enter the Special Collections Technical Services department in various states of disarray and exit in more or less usable form. Tech Services renders materials usable by subjecting them to "processing," which means arranging a collection in some logical way; describing the collection’s arrangement, contents, and research potential so that researchers and staff can find the specific materials they need; cataloging the collection to provide access points that lead researchers to the materials they seek; and taking physical preservation measures to ensure that materials survive long into the future. A good deal of processing is cerebral--developing an arrangement scheme, writing the description, selecting access points--but it also entails work that is mundane and most decidedly unglamorous. Tasks like unfolding, flattening, removing paper clips, annotating, separating, and refoldering are very common in processing work. As in many other fields, countless hours of behind-the-scenes work go into making the writing (and reading) of history look easy. From time to time, nearly every one of us in processing work experiences moments of despair when the amount and detail of work threatens to overwhelm. When this happens, it may be helpful to remember that the papers we process will soon become the "stuff" of history. Each one of us is a link in the long chain of knowledge that stretches from the lives of the men and women who created the materials to the eventual users of the archives ... and, lest we forget, on to all those generations who will benefit from the insights gained by those users now and still to come.

Basic Premises

In accepting archival materials into the The Wilson Special Collections Library, we are accepting the responsibility for preserving the materials and making them accessible to researchers. Processing is based on a few general premises:

  • Our work is an essential contribution to the collective memory of our culture and society. Researchers who study and tell the stories of our past, fundamental to our sense of identity and direction as individuals and communities, can do it well only if we do our jobs effectively.
  • Every collection should be made at least minimally accessible. A collection must have a written description (finding aid) that gives researchers some indication of what they might find in the collection, if not pointers to the boxes or folders in which to look for specific materials of interest. Materials need not be housed in folders or arranged into a comprehensible order before being used by a researcher, but in most cases they will be, and in all cases a processing archivist will review an unprocessed collection before releasing it for researcher use.
  • There are no one-size-fits-all processing treatments. We consider each collection’s condition and perceived research value carefully in determining our processing actions. A supervising archivist will always be available to assist and guide you as you process collections in accordance with these premises.

Overview of Processing

Manuscript collections are wonderfully diverse. The Southern Historical Collection focuses on the South, but it contains information about nearly every part of the world because southerners have visited or lived in nearly every part of the world. And within the South there is great diversity--rich, poor, male, female, African American, Native American, politicians, farmers, housewives, and many others are represented in our collections. Manuscript collections may contain letters, diaries, ledgers, receipts, sound recordings, pictures, and materials in other formats. They range in size from one item in one folder to thousands of items in hundreds of boxes. Some arrive here in file folders, beautifully organized and labeled; others arrive loose in garbage bags. Because of this variety, there can be few hard and fast rules for processing manuscript collections. There are, however, standards, policies, and procedures that must be applied with common sense and flexibility.

University Archives includes records documenting every stage in the growth of the nation’s first state university and its response to local and national issues, from slavery to evolution to freedom of speech. These records are important not only to researchers specifically interested in the history of the University of North Carolina but to those interested in any aspect of the history of higher education. They are also important to current administrators at UNC-CH who need to consider past practices when making decisions. Records are transferred to the University Archives in accordance with the University Archives and Records Management Services General Records Retention and Disposition Schedule, which specifies what records are archival and what records may be disposed once their retention period has ended. Even so, records arrive in varying states of order and disorder. Some have been kept in logical file systems, others have not. Some have been stored and forgotten for many years in attics and basements. As with manuscript materials, the variety of archival records necessitates flexible and common sense applications of standards, policies, and procedures.

Processing is typically thought of as arranging, describing, and cataloging. This manual divides processing into a number of tasks: preliminary research and survey, planning, arrangement, description, and preservation. While this manual contains instructions on producing abstracts that are used to write catalog records, hard-core cataloging is not typically done by processors and so is treated in another Tech Services manual.

Not every processing project will proceed in the orderly sequence described in this manual. Some tasks will be undertaken simultaneously or in a different order and not all tasks will be performed for every collection. When deciding how much to do and in what order to do it, remember that your goal is to preserve the materials and make them accessible in as timely a fashion as possible. And remember to consult your supervising archivist for assistance. When you begin to process a collection, you will first become familiar with the background of the creator of the materials, the history of the collection, and the materials themselves. You will prepare a processing plan, which you will present to and discuss with your supervising archivist. Your plan may be modified at this point to ensure that it conforms to our usual practices and that the projected level of work is appropriate given the research potential and condition of the collection and the time available for processing. This plan is a working document that will be reviewed and revised as you process the collection.

You are now ready to implement your proposed plan. Sometimes with the help of undergraduate student assistants, you will put the materials into the order agreed upon in your processing plan (with necessary modifications, of course) and you will complete requisite preservation work. As you work through the collection, you will take notes on everything, chiefly to record the information that you will need when you write your finding aid. These notes will also serve to refresh your memory if you are gone from your project for an extended period of time. They will also provide helpful tracks should someone need to find materials in your absence or take over your project.

As you process, you will begin writing the collection's finding aid. It is usually easier to describe the materials as you go through them, rather than wait until you have everything arranged and then try to remember what you saw days or weeks ago. In fact, you may write a draft of the biographical or historical note as soon as you finish your background research and later add any essential information gleaned during processing. Similarly, it is usually a good idea to write series descriptions as you go through the collection and make needed revisions, if any, after you have gone through the whole collection. As you will see later in this manual, it is usually good practice to write your scope and content note and abstract last.

When you have finished the draft of the finding aid, give it to your supervising archivist to review. When the two of you are satisfied with the draft, the departmental cataloger will do final editing of the finding aid, prepare catalog record(s) as appropriate, and load them into WorldCat and our online catalog. The departmental cataloger also uploads the finding aid to the Department’s website ( You, meanwhile, will have shelved the collection so that when researchers discover its existence, Research and Instructional Services staff will be able to retrieve it for them. At this point, you will have done your part for the historical record.

How to Use This Manual

How to Proceed was written to be used. It was designed to serve both as a training manual for new staff and as a reference tool for seasoned hands. Novices are encouraged to read the manual through and to consult it frequently as they struggle to whip their first few collections into shape. Old-timers may benefit from periodic review of procedures, but will most often find the manual useful as a ready reference source.

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