History of words: Classification

Classification is crucial for keeping records organised and easy to navigate. Without it, records management would be impossible.

In France, people have been thinking about organising records since 1807, when Daunou, the then Custodian of the Imperial Archives, sent a report to Emperor Napoleon. In it he explained the difficulties of managing the archives in his care and suggested various solutions.

At the time, public archives were generally made up of state archives and departmental archives. However, the centralisation of public archives, which began under the old regime, led to the creation of a network of national, departmental and municipal (and more recently regional and inter-municipal) archives.


The rules of classification

Store documents safelyDaunou raised a major concern: some ministerial bodies kept their archives separately, and it was unclear how they would be integrated with the national archives. He feared that if the relationship between these different repositories wasn’t established, the imperial archives would become a closed collection.

The Secretary of State’s report in March 1808 crushed Daunou’s hopes, saying the imperial archives were too important to be combined with others. This led Daunou to create his own classification framework for the imperial archives, a decision which would eventually result in their becoming the recipient of all state archives.


Classification by alphabetical letters

Classify documents into categoriesBased on the model of the new imperial regime, Daunou separated collections into three categories: those from the old regime and similar periods, the revolutionary period, and the contemporary period. Documents were then organically classified according to the institution that produced them (collections), assigned to archivists and collected according to the administrative, legal or political structures in place.

Next, he created a classification framework that assigned current and future records to organised, pre-determined compartments, represented by the letters of the alphabet. Each compartment had an abstract heading that determined which institutions or state administrations it would contain.

It is thanks to Natalis de Wailly that the national classification system, which pioneered the use of alphabetical letters, became the model for the departmental system as well.  Following the ministry’s instruction to create departmental archives, the archivist documented the basic rules for classification and a common framework in his 1841 proposal to the minister of the interior. The system also adopted the principle of respect for collections.


The 1841 turning point

On April 24, 1841, the proposal was published as a circular, creating a legal framework for organising departmental archives for the first time. This was a significant milestone and made de Wailly one of the founders of French archival science.

For the period following 1800, the classification framework for departmental archives divided the deposits into 14 series designated by letters of the alphabet. Each of the 14 series expanded with new deposits over time.


Classification planning for businesses

The concept of classification, which originated in public institutions, specifies that each collection have its own classification scheme. This ensures that any archived document can be easily located.

To have an efficient records management system, a business must know where to store their documents. Creating archives is the beginning of good record keeping. It’s crucial to determine a document’s fate as soon as it is created, in other words, whether it will be stored or discarded.

Creating a classification plan helps to illustrate the key components of the collection on paper. The most effective classification plans align with the creator’s responsibilities, are simple and logical, and answer important questions, like who produced the documents, what are their main functions, and what are their responsibilities.

The level of detail in the plan will depend on the extent of information that the archivist wants to provide.


Take inspiration from the history of classification and create a system that aligns with your organisation’s needs and responsibilities. This will ensure that your records are organised, easily accessible, and effectively managed. Don’t wait until it’s too late; start planning your classification system today! 

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