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Finding the Needle in the Haystack, aka Processing 101

By Elysia Hamelin, Archivist, Navy Archives

You’ve just heard the U.S. Navy Archives, a part of the United States Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), has recently received a new collection of documents regarding Operation Deep Freeze. Score! You’ve been looking for some new material for your research paper. You try to schedule an appointment only to be told the collection is not yet available, as it still needs to be processed. What? What does that even mean? Let’s take a peek behind the curtain and see what happens to collections before they are made available for research.

After collections are accessioned, or legally transferred to the archive, they must first be processed before they are made available. The Society of American Archivists defines processing as “the arrangement, description, and housing of archival materials for storage and use by patrons.” Collections arrive at the U.S. Navy Archives in a variety of conditions. Some are neat and tidy while others seem to have no order whatsoever. The amount of time it takes to process a collection depends on the size of the collection and its condition. Every processing job is different; however, most collections go through a 5-step process. Let’s take a look at this process with a recent collection, the Ralph W. Sallee papers.

Not neat and tidy

Step 1: Initial Subject Research

Before an archivist will even touch the papers they first make themselves familiar with the anticipated content. This involves reviewing any collection paperwork and doing a little background research. For the Sallee papers this involved reviewing the deed of gift and donation inventory and researching Ralph W. Sallee and Operation Deep Freeze. The donation paperwork had indicated that Ralph W. Sallee was involved with Operation Deep Freeze.

Step 2: Survey Collection

After the archivist has familiarized themselves with the collection, the next step is to look through the papers and conduct a survey. The Society of American Archivists defines a survey as “a broad, general overview.” For the Sallee papers this involved comparing the donation inventory to the actual contents of the boxes, taking notes on the quantity and formats of the collection (i.e. how much of the collection is made up of letters, photographs, official records, etc.), noting the physical condition of the material and any preservation concerns, and recording the original order of the material as established by the creator of the collection. From the Society of American Archivists website: “Original order is a fundamental principle of archives… it preserves existing relationships and evidential significance that can be inferred from the context of the records.”

Step 3: Create a Processing Plan

Before any physical processing can occur the archivist must first create a processing plan. Taking into account all the information they have obtained from their research and survey, the archivist will develop a plan on how the collection will be processed. A large majority of this plan involves how the collection will be organized. The Sallee papers arrived somewhat physically organized in the boxes but with a donation inventory that organized the material intellectually on paper. The decision was made to retain the organization of the collection as it appeared on the donation inventory with a few adjustments.

Step 4: Physically Processing the Collection

After all that work its finally time to physically process the collection. This task involves removing the material from their original envelopes, folders, and boxes and reinserting the material into archival quality envelopes, folders, and boxes. As this occurs, folders will be labeled and organized in the order described in the processing plan. Materials are placed into archival safe housing in an effort to preserve the material. The Society of American Archivists defines preservation as “protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property.” For the Sallee papers this involved removing all photographs, slides, and letters from the plastic sheets they were organized in and placing them in archival envelopes and folders. The folders were then labeled and stamped with collection information before being placed in archival boxes.

Labeled and stamped folders

Step 5: Create a Finding Aid

The last step in any processing job is to create a finding aid. A finding aid records information about the collection, such as information about the creator and an inventory of the material, and helps users to discover the collection. For the Sallee papers this involved creating a brief biography of Ralph W. Sallee, recording all the collection information, and creating an inventory of the folders and boxes.

Final product

I hope you’ve enjoyed this peek behind the curtain to assist in the understanding about what happens to collections prior to their being available for research. For more information about the U.S. Navy Archives and NHHC please visit our website at: www.history.navy.mil. If you are interested in the Ralph W. Sallee papers you can view the finding aid online at:


Archives’ Webpage https://www.history.navy.mil/research/archives.html