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How to determine an archival hierarchy: levels of description

Archive resources can be assigned to various hierarchical levels depending on the type of resource. This article explains the hierarchical levels of archival resources.

You can specify what hierarchical type of resource the resource is for each archive resource. Select from a drop-down menu whether it is a Collection, a Series, a File or an Item. 

An item is the smallest archival unit within the hierarchical system, e.g., a letter, memorandum, report, photograph, or sound recording. 

A file is a collection of documents that have been grouped together as part of the archiving process. A file is an intellectual grouping of documents that is to be distinguished from a physical folder. In a file, individual documents (i.e., items) are given a collective identity and shared context.

A series describes the assemblage of records within a collection that have been grouped together based on their context. Records may be grouped into a series because they originate from the same collection or share a similar attribute resulting from their creation, preservation, or use. By establishing series within a collection, researchers will have a better understanding of where to find specific items. 

A collection is the highest hierarchical level within an archival storage system. A collection represents the totality of archival material that originates from the same source, be it an institution or individual. The content of a collection can be brought together based on common characteristics such as acquisition type, creator, subject, language, medium, or name of the collector. 

These terms and definitions come from the Encoded Archival Description (EAD) and the General International Standard Archival Description (ISAD(G)). The ISAD(G) is an international framework standard for the cataloging of archival materials. Navigating.art has integrated this standard into its platform to align the acquisition of archival materials and the cataloging of your collections with the internationally recognized standards of archival description. 

How these levels of description relate to one another

The four levels are arranged hierarchically. The collection contains all other categories. It can contain series, files and items.

A series sits below the collection and above a file or an item. A series can contain several files and items. 

A file can be part of a collection as well as a series. A file can contain several items, but no series or collection.

Items are the smallest entity in the hierarchy. An item can be part of a file, series, or a collection if no other subcategories exist. An item cannot contain an item, file, series or collection. An item can only consist of a single archival unit and, therefore, cannot contain any other archival material. 


A collection may contain archival materials relevant to the research of an artwork or project. The materials can first be divided into different series, e.g. “correspondences,” “documentations,” and “miscellaneous.” The series “correspondences” can then be divided into files, each containing correspondence with different people. The smallest level in this case would be the individual letters contained in the files. The other series can also be subdivided: Thus, the series “documentation” can be divided into different subject areas on the level of files, e.g. clippings and notes. The documents in the files “clippings” and “notes” represent the items.