The Computerized Accession Ledger:
A view from a Computer Consultant

Robert A. Baron
Museum Computer Consultant


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From Registrar, Vol. 8, No. 2, p. 41 ff. (Fall 1991)
A Publication of the Registrars Committee of the American Association of Museums.

Open Forum

Should a museum use an accession ledger that is bound and hand-written or a computerized or type-written ledger? What is better, given the purpose of the document? Consider the security of the information, the legibility, permanence and the ability of persons to alter the information.

The hand-written accession ledger customarily used to record a museum's acquisition history should never be displaced by card files or computerized database entries. The traditional ledger format is mandatory because it must serve as the authoritative, permanent, inviolate and legal record of a museum's accession activity, and consequently must provide a definitive listing of objects the museum has accepted into its permanent collection. The accession ledger is certainly a record of museum accession activity, but more, it carries the force of a legal document. As such, the ledger both assigns and defines accession numbers. It establishes the termini of each accession number series for the year, the numbers assigned to each accession grouping and to object parts, and notes those numbers within each series that have not been and will not be assigned.

Each entry contained in the ledger must minimally identify objects by number, must note the location of that number on the object, should identify any previously assigned numbers, and must describe and classify the object briefly with the best intelligence known at the moment. The entry should include the object's measurements and should list and number any accessories or parts that are to be included within the accession group. The entry should record the immediate source or donor, record any stipulated credit line, legal restrictions, and should identify the person recording the entry.

Because accession ledgers establish the legal sequence of museum acquisitions, they must be regarded as documents that certify the accessioned objects recorded, much as a banknote or stock certificate stands for an incurred debt. Accession registers should consist of sequentially numbered volumes with the period of activity plainly written on the spine or cover and repeated on a title-page. The numbered series within each volume should be contiguous. Any hiatus in the number sequence should be documented. Each ledger page should be pre-numbered. The sheets, when containing hand-written entries, should be bound in sewn-gatherings (not perfect-bound or loose-leaf). In addition, it would be useful to enter the total number of pages contained in any single volume on the first page: "page one of one hundred pages." The paper and ink should be of archival quality. In addition, the records written in the ledger should account for every line on a page. Unused pages and unused lines should be canceled. The last entry in the register should be identified. Registrars should not reserve room in accession ledgers for works promised but not physically received. Obviously, the accession books should be kept in a secure fireproof location. These volumes should not be used for general reference. If needed, photo-copies should be consulted instead.

Registrars should avoid using ledgers for object management, nor should these books be updated with the latest information regarding provenance or attribution. For this, a modern accession filing system (card or computer) is needed. The customary sets of card-files, vertical files and computer databases should contain data on all object identification history consequent to the date of accession. These files should be maintained so that any researcher can locate the original entry in the registration ledgers, even though the information contained in them might be considered wrong or outdated, or if the accession number were changed later on.

Obviously card-catalogues cannot be used as the primary record of accession because they cannot document the end of a series of assigned numbers, because their order is subject to corruption and because their elements are subject to damage or loss. For similar reasons, loose-leaf typed entries are not acceptable. Electronic computer files are the least acceptable means of establishing a legal record of accessions since there is no way to create an archival original. Computer records should be avoided because they are dependent upon a changing technology for interpretation.

The custom of keeping hand-written accession ledgers dates from a period when all museum record-keeping began with the ledger entry. Today, as computerization becomes the ubiquitous means of collecting object data, the record of accession activity is more easily produced as a by-product of the acquisition procedure. Consequently, it seems that some consideration must be given to the ability of the computer to compile and generate the structure and data required of the traditional accession ledger. An adequate legal surrogate for the standard hand-written ledger can be made by object management programs if the procedural safeguards tacit in the former device are adapted for use in the latter.

The computer-driven ledger should be printed on archival materials, for example on acid-free paper with heat-sealed plasticized laser-printer toner. At the end of each logical or customary accession period, a report listing the complete accession history for that period should be created that presents a contiguous series of accession numbers, including representations of those not assigned (so marked). The first and end of each accession series should be signed-off by hand, and the record for each object and part should be hand initialed for correctness by authorized personnel. The information offered in the accession report should be the same as found in the hand-journal. Procedures should be developed to insure the continuity of the page-numbering system from report to report. At regular intervals the output should be gathered and library-bound with the left margins sewn. The footer on each page may serve as a location for the complete signature of the chair of the Acquisitions Committee or the Registrar.

Each volume of the hand- or computer-ledger should have a title-page that identifies the institution, the activity and period documented, the names of the museum's director, the relevant curators and/or the acquisition committee members. The name of the Registrar should appear along with the names and initials of anyone who has checked the contents of the document. In sum, the ledger should be unambiguous and self-documenting. Its function and nature should be perfectly obvious to someone in the future who is not a museum professional and who may chance to come across it divorced from its original context or location.

1991-1994 by Robert A. Baron
Museum Computer Consultant

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