The Process of Processing

Today’s post was written by Marisa Ramirez, Archival Processing Assistant for the William H. Hannon Library’s Archives and Special Collections.

If you have ever done research in the William H. Hannon Library’s Archives and Special Collections, typically front desk staff have assisted you in finding appropriate material using an online finding aid. Later, you were presented with an archival box filled with material organized in a way that helped you find what you needed for your research. However, material rarely (if ever) comes to us in a way that can be handed off to researchers. We have seen everything from boxes with dead leaves and insects to dreaded water damage and subsequent mold. A lot of work goes into making sure the material you handled is a clean and organized as possible.

Step 1: Stabilize the material!

Box of disorganized archival materials
How materials often come to us

If pages are curled, we flatten them. If folders are damaged, we transfer contents to ones that are clean, and acid-free. If we find rusted staples and paperclips, we swap them out for the plastic kind. If we find mold, we cry. And then separate it from other material until we are able to have it removed.

Step 2: Organize the material!

Stacks of papers
Archival materials organized!

Archival standards insist that we try to keep material in original order, or, the order in which it was received. When there does not appear to be any distinct order, we work carefully to arrange material in a way that makes sense to future researchers. Oftentimes, this requires research to find out exactly what material we are dealing with when we do not know their entire history.

Different series and subseries are created and material is generally divided up by format or subject. For example, a series can be made up of all photographs or of material from a specific time period.

Step 3: Describe the material!

Set of archival file folders
Organized archival files are a beautiful thing

Neatly organized material is no good to researchers if the material cannot be found. Some collections are made up of dozens of boxes and it would take forever for researchers to locate what they want without careful labeled folders and finding aids. A finding aid is a document we create that describes the contents and location of a collection so that a researcher can decide what is needed, even from the comfort of their home. Many of our finding aids are housed in the Online Archive of California database which is a great resource when searching for local primary sources!

This entire process can take anywhere from a few days to a few months depending on the size and condition of the donation. Archival workers must stick to standards and best practices of their field and always keep future researchers in mind. If you love sorting, organizing, and handling one-of-a-kind material, consider working in archives and special collections! And contact us if you would like to schedule an appointment to see our materials for yourself at or call (310) 338-5710.