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Collections Management Training

Online Collections Management training

How to preserve your community or family archive

Advice on how to manage and organise your archive

Collections Management 2: taking in new material ("accessioning")


Want to know how to deal with new additions to your collection?

Can’t remember where those old family letters came from?

It's important to find out the “provenance”, or back story, of the documents in your collection. The best time to do this is when items are transferred into your care, or “accessioned”- the term we use for the formal process of transferring physical, legal and intellectual control of material. Accessioning is an important step in building a collection and helps protect against the threat of dissociation. (Collections Management 1) So let’s look more closely at what it involves.


When items are presented to you, make sure you cover these essential points:
• Who is handing them to you, and when (the date of receipt)

• Who created the documents (this may or may not be person who’s handing them over)

• Whether the documents being given to you permanently. Or loaned for a specific purpose, for example so you can scan them.

• What the documents are: if it’s more than a few, you may need to summarise. For example “family letters sent to Auntie May (Mrs May Jones), and photos from her collection c.1954-1986”

• Quantity and type of material – for example “5 photo albums, 3 ring binders and 3 bundles”

• Find out as much as you can about the items. Also, is there anyone who could add to that knowledge at a later (but not too much later!) date: for example, an older resident who could help identify people in village photos.

• Give that particular “accession” (batch of material) a unique number so you can distinguish it from other items, and label them up with this. You can use a simple running number: at Gloucestershire Archives, we started at #1 in 1936 and are now into the 15,000s!

Remember that you need to record all this information, don’t just rely on memory. There are various ways you could do this, according to your situation and the level of formality needed. To give a couple of suggestions: many community groups like to use a pre-printed form, like thisCommunity Heritage Group sample donation form; or you could use a self-carbonating receipt book. It’s a good idea to give a copy of your accession form or record to the person who handed you the documents-and for best practice this should be signed by both parties.

Some groups like to keep an accession register too. This could be a hard copy, for example, an exercise book, or electronic: for example, an EXCEL or WORD document. It should record:

1) accession number

2) date of receipt

3) the item or collection

4) the quantity of material

5) a brief description of contents.


Alternatively, you could keep your accession forms filed in accession number order. Accessioning is also an ideal opportunity to agree and record permissions on matters such as copyright and access. This is particularly important if you are wanting to let other people see the material or to share documents on a website or social media.

Page updated: 23/11/2020 Page updated by: Ally McConnell

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