3. Arrangement

Previous section: 2. Collecting and Accessioning

Next section: 4. Cataloguing

Courtesy of Coventry University Archives, reference: LAN/1/16/4
Archival Principles
Basics of Arrangement
Arrangement in Practice

Arrangement and cataloguing are closely linked as parts of a single process; that of establishing physical and intellectual control over a group of archives. Arrangement is the intellectual and physical organisation of a group of documents (often creating order from disorder), while cataloguingrefers to describing the contents in order to create an accurate representation of the whole and its constituent parts, and providing the contextual information needed to understand it and its creator. The latter will be dealt with in more detail in Section 4. Cataloguing, below.

To arrange archival material in a meaningful manner you will need to apply (and sometimes adapt) established archival principles, whether consciously or unconsciously.


Depending on the type of organisation you are, and how long you have been in operation, you may have generated a large quantity of internal records relating to your organisation, its work, and its members and officers. Even the smallest organisation will have accumulated items like minute books, accounts, title deeds, correspondence, publicity material and photographs of activities.

First Steps

If you are starting from scratch, this might involve some investigative work surveying locked cupboards, desk drawers, attics, basements and safes to ensure that no material is overlooked. There is no harm repeating this process every few years as many people, at all levels of an organisation, from Trustees to engineers to marketing staff, tend to retain documents (whether paper or in electronic format) long after they are needed for administrative or workplace activities. Also, be watchful for the opposite trait – someone tidying an office, or clearing out a storage area, and about to throw away significant items. Good internal communications and frequent reminders, are essential, particularly in large organisations. Your colleagues need to remember that the archives exists, and that they can contact you if they think they have something that needs to be retained long-term.

If you are part of a large, established, organisation, there may be a Records Manager, on the staff. They will be responsible for preparing Retention Schedules, identifying which records should be retained long-term, and which should be disposed of after a specified number of years, for legal or administrative reasons. You will need to build a good relationship with your Records Manager, to ensure that items identified for permanent preservation are passed to the archives in due course.

In smaller organisations, you may end up unwittingly performing the some of the tasks of a Records Manager, simply by selecting certain items for permanent preservation and leaving the rest where you found them, or approving the disposal of those items no longer required. Useful guidance on appraising current administrative records in charities and voluntary organisations, can be found at https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/archives/management-framework-for-retention-and-transfer.pdf .

Ideally you will be able to bring everything together in one space, which will include areas for sorting and storage, as well as room for a computer – some important recent records may only be available as electronic files – Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, emails, or CAD drawings.

It can be helpful to begin by making a rough list, not in any detail, of what archives there are, where they are, and roughly how much there is. For example, ‘Trust minutes- filing cabinet A, top drawer’, ‘Trust Deed – framed on wall in meeting room’.

Almost invariably groups of records will have been kept together, though perhaps not in good order and with stray documents intermingled. These groups, or series, are the building blocks of your arrangement and description, so they should be retained intact. Don’t rearrange them on the basis of chronology or subject matter. 

It may be that papers relating to the same thing, for example, minutes of the governing body, are to be found in more than one place. Material that you would expect to find, because it ought to have been kept is missing, in whole or in part. If such records can’t be found, are they in the hands of the organisation’s officers, current or previous? Have they been destroyed? Try to establish as much information as you can, even if it is negative.


With the material identified, you are now ready to begin arranging the material. But first you need to assess your available resources.


How much time will you have to devote to this? Have you been able to set aside a period for largely uninterrupted work to bring the records into order? Do you expect to have a regular day a week, or less? Will you only have odd half-hours when there is nothing more pressing? 


Are there any volunteers willing to help? If so, will training and supervision take more time than doing the job yourself? There is little to be gained in arranging a small proportion of the records beautifully, if it means the rest has been completely neglected (this does not mean that all the material need be given equal attention).

Money and assets

What material resources are available? Are there funds to buy archival quality storage materials?


Is there space to work? Will there be dedicated and suitable space for storage?

Archival Principles

The two core principles that should always inform archival arrangement are the principle of Provenance and the principle of Original Order, used in conjunction with Functional Analysis. Common sense also plays an important part – if something looks wrong or makes no sense, it may well be wrong.


The principle of provenance means that records which were created, assembled, and/or maintained by an organisation or individual should be kept and described together, and distinguished from those of any other organisation or individual. This means, for example, that if a trust runs two separate museums, this should be reflected in the archives: the sets of records from the Trust, and those relating to the activities of the two sites, should be kept as discrete groupings, not combined into one on the basis of subject or form or date. On the other hand, if a museum’s displays are at one site, but there is a separate outstore, it is possible that related items, created by the same staff carrying out the same activities, could be found at both sites, and should be integrated when they reach the archives.

Respecting this principle means that every document will be traceable to its origin and will be maintained as part of a group having the same origin. It serves to protect the integrity of records in the sense that their origins and the processes by which they were created are reflected in their arrangement.

Original order

The principle of original order means that the order of the records that was established by the creator should be maintained whenever possible to preserve existing relationships between the documents and the evidence that comes from the order. Original order does not necessarily mean the order in which things were originally created; it means the order in which they were last used as working documents. Do not necessarily assume that a record, for instance a letter found with Trustees’ minutes, should automatically be reassigned to a series of correspondence kept elsewhere. It may be that that the letter is the evidence presented at the meeting as evidence of maladministration in the organisation.

Functional analysis

Original order and provenance are the key principles to be applied in the course of arrangement, but in themselves they do not provide an overarching logic governing overall arrangement. For this the use of functional analysis is helpful. This is an intellectual tool that looks at the role or roles of a record’s creator or creators, and analyses how the documents reflect the ways in which these roles were fulfilled.  In terms of an organisation it means focusing on the administrative structures and business processes designed to implement the work of the organisation and organising the records accordingly. This sounds more complex than it is: it arises quite naturally from the process of compiling your retention schedule and collecting policy.

Common sense

In applying archival principles, there is another principle to be followed, that is, common-sense. There will be times when it is clear that a document found in a particular place would be much better placed elsewhere. There are times when parts of the same record sequence have been kept in two completely different locations for no good reason. Often there is no one right way to arrange archives, there are different ways, and a good knowledge of an organisation (or life of an individual) can help in making decisions.

If in doubt, perhaps talk things through with a colleague, to see if your approach makes sense to them, or look for the online catalogues of similar organisations to your own, to see if they have already dealt with the same issue.

Basics of Arrangement

Most organisations, even those very different in size and objectives, will have certain things in common.


All organisations should have documents covering their governance and establishment, legal status and ordering the way they are run. These can include documents like:

  • Trust deeds, Constitution, Charity Commission schemes of management, Rules, Minutes of governing bodies, Annual reports, Membership records, Correspondence of the officers and central authorities.

Core activities

The next area might be the core activities of the organisation; the way in which it fulfils its raison d’être. For a Museum these can include collections, exhibitions and education.

This is an area where at a later stage you might consider going beyond passive reception of records being created and adopt an active policy to capture the life of the organisation, through a photographic record, audio-visual recordings or oral histories.

Essential support functions

Then there is documentation of the essential support functions required to carry out the core work of the organisation. These include:

  • Finance and resources: annual accounts, trust accounts, Treasurer’s records, fund-raising appeal accounts and literature.
  • Property: deeds, Tenders, specifications, architectural plans and drawings, photographs relating to major projects e.g. new buildings and extensions.
  • Staff: personnel and volunteer records.

Other support activities

These are those activities which support the support functions, such as publicity and outreach Committees, single project Working Parties, newsletters. 

Non-essential activities

It is likely that an organisation will have records relating to activities which it is good to be able to do but are not necessary and could be curtailed. This will vary from organisation to organisation but might include activities such as involvement in external campaigns and establishment of subsidiary organisations.

Finally, it is necessary to consider material created inself-conscious recording of events, such as histories, press reports and photographs, and also any separate collections that were created under the auspices of your organisation, such as the personal papers of particular staff or volunteers.

Useful guidance on arranging and describing personal papers can be found on the Religious Archives Group website at http://religiousarchivesgroup.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/preserving-religious-archives-version-e6-1.doc

Arrangement in Practice

Where any particular series of documents should be placed within this framework is dependent upon how your organisation operates. 

Arrangement and description are parts of one process. By arranging you are preparing the ground for description. The two usually go hand in hand but even if you are unable to describe the components of the archive in any great detail, the collection should nevertheless be arranged, as far as resources permit, according to the same principles. And of course, the arrangement should as far as possible be seamless between current records and historic archives so that when records are ready to come into the archives, they fit into an existing structure.

Inevitably, in large organisations, there will be periodic re-structures. Departments will merge, split, appear and disappear. People will move around and roles will change. Try to make sure that your arrangement has enough flexibility to cope with such changes, both historic and yet to come. It can be useful to spend time researching the administrative history of your organisation, and talking to key people involved with it over time. This can help to put the changes into context, fill in gaps in the documentation, explain why things were done a certain way, and assist with the next stage: cataloguing.


Depending on the nature of your organisation, many, if not most, of the records in your archive will have been received from external organisations, businesses and individuals. Many of the same principles apply to arranging such external records, particularly Provenance (keeping the records received from a particular source separate, in a discreet collection), and retaining the Original Order as far as possible, though this may not be possible, or even advisable in small collections or those of a very miscellaneous nature.

Common-sense plays a large part in arranging miscellaneous collections. For instance, if there are clearly some business records, group these together, separating out the separate businesses where possible, all the while bearing in mind which companies are linked by ownership and descent. Likewise, separate sections for categories such as printed material, photographs and ephemera can be useful. A major purpose of arrangement is to guide users easily towards related or similar material in the collection. Archivists tend to arrange items chronologically within groups of similar material, but for published material, alphabetical arrangements may sometimes be more appropriate.

The groupings made at this stage will form the basis for a hierarchical catalogue in all but the smallest and most straightforward collections.

Don’t agonise over the fine details of arrangement, you can always make adjustments during the cataloguing process, if more information becomes available or you change your mind.

For inspiration, look at the online catalogues of organisations with similar collections to see how they have arranged comparable collections, or arrange a visit to talk with the people who created the catalogues, to learn from their experiences, and if they would have done things differently in hindsight.

This guidance links to Section 2.3 (Collections Information) of the Archive Service Accreditation Standard.

Note. The core of this document is based on Archives for Beginners – Arrangement, prepared by Tim Powell for the Religious Archives Group, and is Crown Copyright

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Next section: 4. Cataloguing

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