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Collections management

Making a box list

If you do not already have one, set time aside to make a quick ‘box list’ (an inventory of the archive). Box lists describe not just boxes, but also any containers of archive material such as files, ring-binders, volumes, packets and bundles, or the loose contents of drawers and cabinets.

A box list will:

  • Provide an overview of what type of material is in the archive
  • Enable you to make a quick assessment of any issues with the condition of the material or any special storage that would be needed because of its format (eg photographs, textiles, audio-visual or digital material)
  • Enable you to identify material that might be particularly important for research
  • Enable you to spot any material that might need special access restrictions
  • Enable you to quickly see what you have and how much – like stock control in a shop
  • Check if anything is missing

How to make a quick box list

Have clean hands and a clean, dry area to work in. Set aside some time when you will not be disturbed.

Begin by giving each box, volume or file a number. You can label boxes with pencil or with slips of paper inserted into the boxes. Never use sticky notes or labels on archival records themselves as they cause damage. Use slips of paper to label bound volumes.

Make a table, divided into columns with the following headings:

Unit number

Give each unit of archive material (a box, file, volume or any other container) a number as you go, so you know how many you have and so you can check if anything goes missing. Give each unit a three-digit number such as 001, 002, 003 etc.


This is the basic title that describes your box, file or volume. Avoid repeating information that you’ll also put in the box contents field.


Try to avoid counting individual items and stick to how many boxes, files or volumes you have. Hint: if you find you have several boxes, files or volumes relating to the same thing, create one entry and simply change the ‘extent’ entry to the number of boxes, files or volumes you have.


Give a very brief overview (2–3 sentences) of what is being described. Include details of which kinds of records are included, such as correspondence, reports or photographs. Remember your users can look at the actual items to get more information.

Dates covered

Include the dates or date ranges that cover the items in your box, file or volume. If you the date is approximate, include a ‘c.’ (short for ‘circa’) next to the date. Below are some examples of how to write dates. The accuracy of the dates can depend on the information you have available.

  • 25 April 2014–30 May 2014
  • Sep 2013–Oct 2014
  • 2013–2014
  • c. 2013
  • 21st Century

Avoid marking boxes, files or volumes as undated as you should always be able to identify at least the century in which the material is created. If you really have no idea ‘n.d.’ can be noted in this field.

Notes on problems/conditions

Use this field to note any initial comments on the condition of an item, or anything else noteworthy, for example whether it contains personal information that may affect its accessibility. Complete a line in the table for each box, volume or file in your archive. 


Enter the location where it the item(s) are stored.

Download a box list example.

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