Archival Terms


An accession involves the surveying and collecting of information about records as found and is the first step in the process that enables retention and storage decisions to be made. Accessioning focuses on the physical location of the records prior to their inclusion in an archive program. Indeed, it provides the gateway by which records can enter an archive program. A well constructed accessioning system that integrates the related archival and curatorial processes of provenance, series and inventory management enables a full audit trail to be created.

Accessioning generally divides records into groups according to physical location and provenance. The kinds of information collected in an accession are:

  • provenance (custodian before transfer to archives);
  • general description of the type, function and format of the records;
  • physical arrangement of the records;
  • date ranges;
  • quantity and dimensions;
  • location where found; and
  • contact details of the custodian at the time of accessioning.

Each accession is given a unique accession number, and a box/shelf/unit number within that accession. This is used to document the order in which the records were found and is the vital management information that links the inventory processed records to their origins.


A series is a set of records brought together intellectually (in a guide or database system) and this is often, but not necessarily, reflected in the physical arrangement of the records in the archival program. Series have two purposes. Firstly, they help preserve information about the structure and function of the records when they were last part of an active business or other entity and secondly, they help make it easier for archival users to find their way around the records.

Series are normally identifiable because they contain records which were used or kept together as part of a system. Records may be identified as part of a series because they may have been controlled through the same numerical, alphabetical, chronological or other sequence or were united in physical proximity by virtue of their function. They could also result from the same accumulation or filing process, which may mean they are of similar physical shape or information type. A series, therefore may be based on the format, content, function, or control system of the records.

The documentation of a series includes:

  • the provenance of the records (custodian at the latest identified active date of the series);
  • a title;
  • a description of the format, content, and any control systems used;
  • functions of the records;
  • arrangement of the records;
  • date ranges;
  • quantity and dimensions; and
  • related series.

Series are also numbered and divided into inventory units which assist with access and where possible reflect the way in which the records from that series were held together while active.


Provenance refers to the creator, source or former custodians of the records and is vital in establishing the context in which the records were created and used. Provenance may be documented as the agency, office, place or person from which the records originated or were accumulated. This is the person or entity which created, received or accumulated and used the records in their day-to-day business or activities. It may also refer to the chain of ownership which reflects the office(s) or person(s) that created, received or accumulated and used the records over time. The allocation of an appropriate provenance entry at the various levels of archival records management is one of the key tasks of an archivist.

The records which are created by a specific office bearer in an organisation may be documented as having the same provenance, even though the individual holding this position changes over time. Identifying and documenting the provenance of records is an essential element in the successful management of records and the provenance information is itself necessary in establishing their authenticity and integrity. This may be of particular importance if the records are required to stand as evidence in a legal environment.

Using provenance information correctly means that the records of an agency or person cannot be confused or mistaken for the records of another. This also helps ensure that the records are retained and documented to reflect the way they functioned and/or were organised when part of the active business of the organisation or person.

Provenance data consists of information about the organisation, agency, workgroup or individual and is divided into elements such as:
  • title of organisation / group / person;
  • function(s) of organisation / group / person;
  • structure of organisation / group;
  • relationships to other organisations / groups / individuals;
  • predecessors; and
  • history or biographical note.


The inventory provides the management tool at the heart of the archive program. It documents records and / or artefacts at a level appropriate to the structure, content and nature of the materials. It provides the information necessary to manage both the specific access to and the preservation of the records or artefacts.

The inventory documents and defines the units that can be removed from the archives for reference or any other purpose. These units could be files, a set of files, or part of a file; a volume or set of volumes, an object, photograph(s), electronic records or multimedia objects, or larger groups of material that could be described under a single title. The amount of descriptive detail will vary according to the nature and requirements of the materials. It also provides the mechanism by which the location or custody of the materials is managed.

Each entry in the inventory is given a unique identity number which is recorded in the database and marked on the records. In many cases barcodes are used. The inventory documentation includes:

  • provenance (the last active creator or custodian of the inventory unit);
  • title;
  • detailed content description;
  • formats of the contents;
  • dates;
  • quantity and dimensions;
  • conservation notes;
  • accession number (which indicates where the records came from);
  • series and series sequence number; and
  • access status.

Published by the Australian Science and Technology Heritage Centre on AustehcWeb, April 2004
With support from Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research and Amalgamated Melbourne and Essendon Hospitals (The Royal Melbourne Hospital)
Listed by Gavan McCarthy and Oscar Manhal, Index by Miranda Hughes
HTML edition Ailie Smith
Updated 15 November 2007

The template for this finding aid is part of the Heritage Documentation Management System

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