Guide to Processing Collections

The Rockefeller Archive Center Guide to Processing Collections provides detailed documentation on the archival processing strategies and methods used at the RAC. It was written by the RAC Processing Team in close collaboration with other members of the RAC archival staff. Within the institution, it is commonly referred to as the Processing Manual.


The Processing team establishes and enhances intellectual and physical control of our archival holdings by effectively and efficiently organizing, describing, and preserving all eligible materials, regardless of form, medium, or creator, to facilitate user access. We ensure timely, open, and equitable access to primary sources on site and online. We actively promote the use and understanding of the historical record through the collection guides we create in accordance with DACS descriptive standards, and all program policies and procedures foster accountability and transparency. The Processing team commits to culturally competent descriptive practices, as we acknowledge that our collections and the archival descriptions we create are shaped by racial, gendered, and other cultural identities and biases. We aim to describe materials representing marginalized, underrepresented, and historically oppressed people and cultures appropriately and respectfully. As we learn and grow through professional development, we seek opportunities to contribute to the archival profession and collaborate with practitioners in related fields.


  • Projects are assigned primarily by accession or in small sets of material.
  • All archival staff conducting processing should utilize project management software and create archival description in the RAC collections management system.
  • Projects focus on priority collections and areas of greatest risk for degradation and loss including legacy backlog holdings, audiovisual, digital media, and special formats.
  • Redescription of legacy holdings is regularly assigned, and remediation actions are taken on an ongoing basis to improve the user experience, including:
    • Identification and revision of problematic, out dated, obsolete, or otherwise inaccurate information
    • Enhancing description to augment and expand access
    • Periodically conducting audits across all archival description to identify priority collections in need of reparative action in accordance with Culturally Competent Description goals
    • Reviewing, and acting upon, Archival Description Concern requests received from RAC staff
  • Developing and using tools to meet institutional and team goals through coding, scripting, and cross-team collaboration, and formulating processes to assist in the long-term maintenance and upkeep of those tools.
  • Maintain quality and completeness of the archival repository by annually running DACSSpace, and addressing any issues identified, to ensure that all published RAC finding aids meet or exceed DACS minimum requirements.
  • Priority is given to those projects for which the RAC has a contractual obligation.
  • Priority is also given to recent accessions and born-digital materials when feasible.

Processing Levels

Processing at RAC is conducted at three levels. Each processing level builds upon the work accomplished at the previous level. If a given level of work is not discretely performed, it is incorporated implicitly into the next higher level.

Level 1: Basic/Preliminary Processing – establishes initial intellectual and physical control.

Level 2: Minimal Processing – takes all necessary steps to open records for research.

Level 3: Standard Processing – Projects involving newly processed records focus on rehousing and further description of records, creators, activities, and the associated relationships. Periodic reviews and audits of legacy holdings focus on redescription to improve, enhance and/or take culturally conscious reparative action as necessary.

Note: All incoming archival materials must complete the accessioning process and receive Level 1 and Level 2 Processing in order to be OPEN for research.

Level 1: Basic/Preliminary Processing

  • Basic/Preliminary processing is conducted by the accessioning team, the processing team, or through interdepartmental teamwork.
  • All archival ingests receive Level 1 processing at the point of accessioning.
  • For legacy collections never officially accessioned, the processing archivist incorporates the necessary steps into the assigned processing and informs Collections Management of the lack of official documentation to prompt a retroactive accession.
  • Head of Processing periodically assigns processing priority to new accessions.
  • Accessions, or portions of collections, with a low processing priority may require only Level 1 processing for long-term retention.

Level 1 actions include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Establishing Archival Context and Structure
    • Assign and record collection/accession title (in collaboration with Assistant Director for Processing if necessary)
    • Link known creator or source to accession record (when feasible)
    • Records remain as received. No arrangement or rearrangement.
    • Box-level instances are assigned.
  • Description
    • Ideally the donor/depositor will provide RAC with an inventory.
    • If the inventory prepared by the donor/depositor adequately meets basic processing requirements, no additional RAC-produced inventory is required at accessioning.
    • General description of contents from an appraisal report, or from documents provided by the donor/depositor, can serve in lieu of an inventory.
    • The minimum requirement is a single-level general description of contents, which can also serve in lieu of an inventory.
    • General description can be a summary statement describing the whole such as:
      • Accession contains grant files, Board of Directors files, and subject files.
  • Preservation
    • A preservation assessment is conducted to identify any immediate preservation concerns (e.g. mold, water damage, pests, decomposing items).
    • Materials are rehoused only when necessary to facilitate archival storage.
    • Additional preservation or stabilization steps may be taken for materials with special handling requirements such as oversized, brittle or damaged items.

Level 2: Minimal Processing

Level 1 processing, plus the following additions:

  • Archivists perform the tasks necessary to enable researcher access.

Minimal processing actions often include, but are not necessarily limited to:

  • Establishing Archival Context and Structure
    • Identify and assign primary creators/agents.
    • Identify primary functions, activities, and file types.
    • Establish multi-level intellectual arrangement and description, while facilitating preservation. Materials arranged and described together may be physically stored separately.
  • Description
    • Identify all applicable restrictions/conditions of access and use and address any restricted material.
    • Create multi-level description reflective of the records, the agents, the activities represented, and the relationships between them, including component description (such as Series description) or file-level description.
    • Expand and enhance intellectual control of the material by adding front matter notes to the finding aid, as determined in Project Vitals.
  • Preservation
    • Retain existing housing or rehouse select materials into acid-free lignin-free boxes and/or folders.
    • Work with Collections Management to further identify and stabilize any materials with immediate or significant preservation concerns.
  • Level 2 assignments may take the form of a concentrated Archives Blitz conducted by individual staff or by the Processing Team (See Head of Processing for details).

Note: Once all applicable Level 1 and Level 2 Processing steps are completed – the collection/accession – or all eligible material within the collection/accession – is open for research. (Records may receive further processing based on RAC Processing Priorities).

Level 3: Standard Processing

Level 2 processing, plus the following, as applicable:

  • Establishing Archival Context and Structure
    • Gain physical/intellectual control of records to file level (including all applicable hierarchical levels – record group, subgroup, series, subseries, file).
    • Retain original order or “as received” order whenever feasible.
    • Do not arrange material within a folder without the prior approval of the Head of Processing.
  • Description
    • Create, or revise, standard finding aid to file level, in accordance with all RAC descriptive standards. (See: Building the Finding Aid).
  • Preservation
    • Rebox and refolder (acid-free, lignin-free materials) for permanent storage and preservation of the materials, as necessary.
    • Conduct minimal preservation actions at the file level (preservation photocopy and remove brittle or damaged material).
  • At-Risk Materials

Reporting Problematic Description to Processing Team

Redescription efforts, particularly those of the Culturally Competent Description Action Campaign, will be guided in part by user feedback and efforts to improve the user experience. Staff members may observe an example of problematic content or an area where culturally competent descriptive practices could be implemented within our archival description while carrying out a variety of activities such as researching our collections, performing reference tasks, conducting data cleanup, etc. Seeking to describe, assess, and possibly remedy the observed item is not a critique of the work of the archivist who created the original description but rather a component of iterative archival descriptive work that is necessary to center our users in our description.

When staff members encounter instances of problematic archival description and/or see opportunities for reparative description within the RAC’s collections and are unsure of how to act, they should use the Archival Description Concern Request form to identify the issue and notify Processing Archivists who can help address the problem.

The form can be used to report a variety of issues in addition to problematic description such as data display issues in DIMES and inaccurate information. If one of the reasons for submitting the form is a reparative description concern, make sure to check the “Opportunity for reparative description” option in response to the “What about the description needs addressing or changed?” prompt. Respondents are to use the form’s other prompts to identify the object containing the problematic description and where within the object is the issue, share contextual information about the problematic description, and describe what is problematic about it. Users also have the option of submitting suggested solutions to the problem. If staff members wish to leave their names for the purpose of follow-up discussion with the archivists working on the issue they identified, they have the option to submit their name as part of their report. Otherwise, responses are collected anonymously.

Processing Archivists will use the information provided in a staff member’s response to investigate the issue described and implement the most appropriate reparative action. Data collected through the responses will also help build understanding of trends and issues affecting the RAC’s archival description and inform other CCD projects.

Processing Project Assignments

(Minimal and Standard Processing)

Each processing assignment is accomplished in two phases:

Phase I. Planning

Phase II. Processing

In an effort to facilitate the work accomplished by processing archivists and the interdepartmental teamwork which assists and facilitates our success, this processing guide is primarily presented as a step-by-step instructional.

The Planning phase consists of eight common steps, and the Processing phase consists of 32 common steps. Due to the unique character of each individual archival collection and the unforeseen issues that may materialize or develop during a project, the ordering of these steps is flexible in practice. However ALL 40 steps must be completed, by an individual or team, for a collection to be considered successfully processed.

Staff members can consult the Archival Description Concern Requests Project in order to track progress on their form submission. Their submission will be identified by the archival object title or identifier they described in their submission.


In drafting the guide, the RAC Processing Team focused primarily on creating local practices and procedures that implemented the guidelines and principles established in Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). DACS is the official archival description standard of the Society of American Archivists (SAA), a national professional association for archivists. The RAC Processing Team consulted a number of SAA resources such as the SAA online glossary - A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, by Richard Pearce-Moses - when outlining its policies in the guide.

Planning »