2. Collecting and Accessioning

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Courtesy of the Modern Records Centre, reference: MSS.226/ST/3/A/PR/16/3/5
Collecting Policy
Collections Development


Depending on the nature of your organisation, the way in which you collect archives will vary enormously.

  • If you are a business archive, the majority of your archives will have been produced internally as part of the everyday activities of the company, and then transferred for safekeeping when they are no longer of current use, but have been identified as being worthy of permanent preservation.
  • If you are a museum, you will probably have a large number of separate gifts, of varying sizes. You may hold records of companies and organisations that no longer exist, personal collections of papers, or miscellaneous collections accumulated by individuals.
  • If you are a private collector, special interest society, or a group of enthusiasts, you may have purchased items and obtained copies from other places, relating to a specific theme, as well as accumulating records relating to your own activities.

A fundamental principle of the archive sector is that documents should remain as part of an identifiable collection, normally that in which they came into your hands. For instance:

  • Business records of the Newtown Locomotive Works.
  • The PJ O’Reilly photographic collection.
  • Personal papers and ephemera of Ted Davies.

This allows items within the collection to be arranged in a meaningful order, and for it to be clearly seen how they relate to each other.

This also means that collections should not be split up and merged with other collections thematically. There is nothing wrong with creating links at an intellectual level (e.g. specific indexes of photographs or plans), and in practice it may make sense to store similar formats of material together (e.g. large plans or photographs), but the integrity of the collection should be respected, and items should be easily identified as part of a specific collection. The main exception to this rule is if you have a large number of single items, received from a variety of sources, and with no obvious links, in which case it might make sense to group these together, e.g. Miscellaneous Manuals. [“Miscellaneous” as a term is commonly frowned upon in archival circles, but often used in practice as it is a useful catch-all for items that cannot otherwise be categorised].

Normally, only material received from the same source (an individual, or any part of a single company) should be added to an existing collection, i.e. an additional gift/deposit. Similar material from a different source should only be added if it is very clearly a stray item.

Collecting Policy

Most collecting is not carried out randomly. You may be particularly interested in one or more specific companies, networks, models, individuals, or locations. This core interest should form the basis of a Collecting Policy which defines the scope and content of your collections. The policy should clearly state what you are interested in collecting and, ideally, what you are NOT interested in collecting. You may, or may not, be interested in acquiring copies of material elsewhere, or secondary sources such as publications. The core thrust of your Collecting Policy should closely reflect the Mission Statement of your organisation, setting out its core purpose, aims, values and possibly a geographical remit.

The Policy can incorporate both enhancing your existing collecting themes and filling identified gaps. If you do not collect material relating to a specific subject because it is normally collected by another organisation (whether or not there is a formal agreement in place to this effect), you can mention this in your policy. Ideally, the focus of your collecting will not overlap with that of another organisation, as that can lead to confusion for researchers, unhealthy rivalry, and duplication of efforts. The policy can also indicate if you are unable to accept certain formats, such as film and other audio-visual material because of a lack of specialist equipment.

It is useful to have the policy available publicly, such as on a website, so that potential donors/depositors know if they are contacting the right organisation.

If you are offered material which is not of interest, you can use your Collecting Policy as a justification for refusal without causing offence. It is helpful if you can point the enquirer towards another organisation that might be interested.

If you are an accredited museum or archive, you will need to have a formal Collecting Policy signed-off by your governing body. However, for smaller organisations and groups, a statement of your collecting interests may be sufficient at this stage.

For more information on Collecting Policies, please see https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/archives/archive-collection-policy.pdf

Almost inevitably, you will be offered a collection where some of the material falls within your Collecting Policy and some does not. You will need to decide whether the collection should be maintained in its entirety, or if it is appropriate to split the collection, with the non-relevant material being transferred elsewhere. The final decision may depend on how closely the material inter-relates. You may even decide that the whole collection is best housed elsewhere because the non-transport material is more significant than the material in which you are interested. Your Sector Development Manager can offer advice on such matters or put you in touch with other organisations who may be interested in such collections.

Collections Development

If your organisation is well-established, you may wish to focus your collecting activities, and target known gaps, by developing a Collections Development Policy and Plan. Collections development policies explain how collecting practices will be achieved and developed over time, identifying collecting priorities and strategies. They detail the resources needed to deliver the policy and prioritise those activities that are essential to proactive collections development. Specific guidance on Collections Development can be found at https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/archives-sector/advice-and-guidance/managing-your-collection/developing-collections/collection-development/


It is very important that you record and retain key information about the source of the collections that you acquire. This may be needed at a later date to prove ownership, for asking permission to copy items, or to link together related collections.

If you are in a Business Archive, or are an Accredited Museum, you will be familiar with the concept of Accessioning. Practice varies between the archives and museums sectors (the Object Entry process is not routinely used in archives, where the Accessioning process includes key elements of Object Entry). The key information to record at this point is:

  • A unique Accession number. This might be a running number, or a combination of the year of accession and a running number commencing at one.
  • Date accessioned
  • The name and address of the donor/depositor (this can be their business address if appropriate)
  • Their position within a company or organisation (if appropriate)
  • Telephone/email for ease of future contact.
  • Whether it is a gift, a deposit, or a purchase.
  • Whether it is an addition to an existing collection.
  • A rough description of the item/collection, including what it is, the covering dates, and details of the creating individual/organisation.
  • Approximate covering dates.
  • A rough estimate of the size of the collection.
  • A note on formats to help identify storage requirements, particularly if the records are digital.
  • A note on any issues relating to condition, to help identify preservation requirements.
  • If there are any conditions relating to access (e.g. personal information that should be closed for a number of years, or items subject to commercial confidentiality).
  • Are they are the copyright owners of the items and, if so, are they assigning copyright to you? If they are the copyright owners, do they wished to be contacted for permission before you copy items for external use? [Be aware that copyright normally lies with the creator of a document or their employer, and their heirs/successors until the date it expires. It is not the same as ownership of a document.]
  • If they are happy for you to use images online.
  • If they are happy for you to use items in exhibitions.
  • If they wish you to return items that you choose not to retain, or whether you can transfer them to another organisation or confidentially destroy them.

Carefully recording this information at the Accessioning stage can save a considerable amount of work at a later date, and it is not always possible to gather all the relevant information retrospectively.

Archival practice is for an Accessions Form containing this information to be issued to the donor/depositor, as a formal receipt, and for a duplicate to be retained. These

should be signed by the donor/depositor and the member of curatorial staff dealing with the accession, ideally including their title/position within the organisation. The Accessions Form provides proof of transfer of ownership and consent to any agreed terms and conditions of deposit.

It is best if the Accessions form can be completed immediately so that you can obtain all the relevant information from the depositor/donor, but in practice it may often have to be completed retrospectively, which does make it harder to obtain a signature.

It is useful to have a template Accessions Form which can either be filled in on a computer then printed off and signed, or filled in by hand if that is more practicable. You may find it useful to place your Terms of Deposit on the back of the Form. Be careful to maintain the running number of accessions in chronological order, as gaps, or out of order entries can cause confusion at a later date.

Before you accept something for your collection, try to ascertain if the donor/depositor actually owns the material. Business records such as plans may still be the property of the company that created them (or its successors). Liberating material from a skip, even though it would otherwise have been destroyed, does not transfer legal ownership! If questions of ownership arise at a later date, the accessions form will be a paper trail recording how you acquired the items, rather than having to rely on memory.

In the museums sector, most accessions are donated (gifted). However, in the archives sector it is more common for items to be deposited (loaned), in which case, ownership remains with the owner and they can ask for the material back. You will have a lot more control over items that have been donated. It can be useful to draw up a set of Terms of Deposit, setting out such issues as a set notice period before withdrawal, and if reasonable costs can be recouped for work carried out on the collection such as packaging, remedial conservation and cataloguing, and if so how they will be calculated. It is also worth asking depositors to let you know of changes of address and details of an heir in the case of bereavement, so that you are able to contact them in the future if the need arises.

It is good practice to also accession purchased items, so that all your collections are fully documented.

Core information should then be transferred to an Accessions Register. If you have a Collections Management System, there may be an Accessions Module in which you can also enter the information for convenience. Remember that personal information should be stored securely and donor/depositor details should not be publicly available if they are private individuals. If your Accessions Register is handwritten, try to make the writing as legible as possible, for the sake of your colleagues and successors. In the museums sector it is common to keep a copy of the Accessions Register on a separate site so that the information is retrievable in case anything happens to the original. The location for the copy needs to be secure because of the personal data contained in the Register, so another repository would be preferable to a private home.

It is quite likely that, even if you now have an Accessions Register, it does not date back to the beginning of your organisation’s collecting activities. Try to retrospectively collate the information for at least your largest and most significant collections, using any correspondence or paperwork you can locate, or by re-contacting known donors/depositors.

For the sake of consistency, it helps if only a limited number of people are involved in the Accessioning process. However, it is common for items to be left at a front desk “for consideration” on days when the curatorial staff are not available, or handed over during external events. It is important that any staff and volunteers who might receive documents (or objects) in such circumstances, should be aware of the proper procedures, and that they record the key information, especially contact details. Otherwise, at worst, you will end up with shelves full of un-provenanced, and possibly unwanted, items, with no way of contacting the owners; and at best, you will create lots of additional work for the curatorial team trying to collate all the information correctly.

If you are a private collector or informal group of enthusiasts, it would still be useful to record details relating to newly acquired items. The information could be of use in the future if you develop into a formal society or museum, or if your collection is eventually passed on to a museum or archive.

Accessioned items should either be catalogued straight away if you have capacity (particularly if there are a small numbers of items, or particularly significant items), or else packaged and clearly labelled with their Accession number, and then transferred to your storage area until such time as they can be properly catalogued.

The exception to this rule is if the items are contaminated with mould or infested with pests, in which case they should be placed in isolation until they can be professionally treated, so as not to risk contaminating other collections. If you do not have a separate room for quarantining such material, you should think very hard about the significance of a contaminated collection before taking it into your care, because of the likely costs of treatment and potential risk to other material in your collections. Some collecting policies will indicate that material requiring extensive conservation will not be accepted.

If items are placed in storage without being labelled it can be very difficult to retrieve them at a later date, you may not be sure you have located the whole collection, and there is a risk of separate collections becoming accidentally mixed – holding shelves tend to be rather messy and items are often moved around to create space or to locate other items, especially if more than one person works on the collections.


If your Collecting Policy is much more recent than the formation of your organisation, you may wish to re-appraise your existing collections to see if they are still relevant to your mission. Many organisations collect indiscriminately in their early years, but become more focused as they develop or when they begin to run out of storage space. If collections are identified as being outside your Collecting Policy, it may be appropriate to De-Accession them and return them to their owner, transfer them elsewhere, or otherwise dispose of them – again, your Sector Development Manager can advise on the ethics and practicalities of this approach. The National Archives has developed specific guidance on Deaccessioning and Disposal, available at http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documents/Deaccessioning-and-disposal-guide.pdf . You should maintain records of what has been de-accessioned, why, and on whose authority, in case questions are raised at a later date.

This guidance links to Sections 2.1 (Collections Management), 2.2 (Collections Development) and 2.3 (Collections Information) of the Archive Service Accreditation Standard.

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Next section: 3. Arrangement

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