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Many collecting organizations are familiar with the term cataloguing when referring to the process of documenting their historical collections and items.  In archives, this process is called arrangement and description and while similar to museum cataloguing, it differs in many ways.  Below is information and advice on documenting your archival collection including a online training video.

Learn the basic principles for organising a small archival collection with experienced archivist Bruce Smith in Arrangement and description of small archival collections. The presentation covers the concepts of arrangement and description, provenance, original order, context, administrative history, the series system, and how to organise an inventory of your collection items. Here's a handy video that covers the basics;




This is the intellectual and physical process of putting archives and records into order in accordance with accepted archival principles, i.e. provenance & original order. It includes sorting, packaging, labelling & shelving.



Description is the process of recording, in a standardised form, information about the nature and content of the archives.


The levels of arrangement and description

People & organisations: Create records which are  grouped into series.

Series: Series are groups of records created and kept together by a person or organisation. Series consist of items.

Items: Are individual records within a series of records.


Archival principles of arrangement and description

Archivists have two guiding principles for the arrangement and description of archives. These are the principles of provenance and original order.



Provenance is the person or organisation of origin of the records, i.e. the entity which created, accumulated and used the records in the conduct of personal or business life.

It is often referred to as the records creator.

It is the chain of custody which reflects the organisation(s) or person(s) that created and used the records in the conduct of their business or personal life.

In archival theory, the principle of provenance requires that the archives of one entity are not physically mixed or combined with the archives of another entity.

The archives are retained and documented in their functional and/or organisational context.


Original order

Original order is the order in which the records and archives were kept when in active use.

It is the order of accumulation as they were created, maintained and used (filing system/filing order).

The principle of original order requires that the original order be preserved or reconstructed unless, after detailed examination, the original order is identified as totally a haphazard accumulation making the records irretrievable (but not an odd, unorderly or difficult arrangement).


Archival documentation

Archivists document provenance using an administrative history or a brief biography.

They document original order using a series description sheet, and they prepare an inventory of the items in each record series.


Administrative history sheet/biographical note

When preparing and administrative history sheet you should include the following:

  • name of the records creating entity
  • unique identifying number
  • date range
  • administrative history or biographical note
  • related entities
  • name of preparer
  • date of completion
  • date of establishment & instrument of establishment
  • functions, inc any changes to functions over time
  • significant events or changes and their dates
  • date of cessation & instrument of cessation
  • previous and/or subsequent entities.

See example below:

Admin Hist daigram

Biographical note

When preparing a biographical note you should include the following:

  • name of the records creating entity
  • unique identifying number
  • date range
  • administrative history or biographical note
  • related entities
  • name of preparer
  • date of completion
  • dates of birth, marriage and death
  • addresses
  • qualifications/honours
  • working life
  • significant activities
  • memberships & offices held.



Series are groups of records created and kept together by a person or organisation.  They are a group of records having the same provenance which belong together because:

They are part of a filing system (alphabetical, numerical, chronological, or a combination of these).

They have been kept together because they result from the same activity.


Series description sheet

The series description collates all the information you know about the series.  When preparing a series description sheet you should include the following:

  • provenance
  • unique identifying number
  • series title
  • date range
  • quantity
  • content description
  • condition
  • arrangement
  • related series
  • access conditions
  • notes
  • name of preparer
  • date completed.


Record item or item 

These are the smallest unit of record material which accumulate to form a series, e.g. a file in a series of files, a volume in a series of volumes, photograph in a series of photographs.



As part of your process of arranging and describing records you can develop an inventory or listing of items within your series.  This can be for example:

  •  item by item 

i.e. Box 10, photo no’s 123, 124, 125, …

  • range listed (if is complete)

i.e. Box 10, photo no’s 123 to 137

  • range listed with exceptions (items missing).

i.e. Box 10, photo no’s 123 to 137 (photo 124, 129 & 136 missing)

Material in the Public Record Office Victoria archival collection contains words and descriptions that reflect attitudes and government policies at different times which may be insensitive and upsetting

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples should be aware the collection and website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.

PROV provides advice to researchers wishing to access, publish or re-use records about Aboriginal Peoples