To close out this year, I want to reflect on some notable pieces of archival literature.  I’ll begin with Leonard Rapport’s piece, which he first presented at the 1980 annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists and then published in the Spring 1981 issue of the American Archivist.  Rapport was born in Durham, N.C., and studied at the University of North Carolina with R.D.W. Connor.  He worked at UNC Press and with the Southern Writers’ Project before serving with the Army from 1941-48.  From 1949-84, he worked at the National Archives and on various National Historical Publications Commission projects, including the Documentary History of the Ratification of the Federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Rapport began this piece with a simple premise: “Every repository of public records has on its shelves records which, if offered today, we would not accept.  If we wouldn’t accept them today, why should we permit these records to occupy shelf space?  For such records there should be no grandfather clause” (143).

He offered several reasons why repositories have records that aren’t worth keeping:

  • faulty original appraisal
  • appraisal standards have changed
  • accessioning may have occurred without appraisal
  • records creators may use influence to get materials accepted
  • repository may accept some papers in hopes of getting other, more significant ones

This then begs the question why we keep records that aren’t worth keeping:

  • custodians may feel possessive toward collections they accessioned
  • empty shelves may cause a loss of support and/or space
  • mystique associated with certain accessions

Rapport concluded with three questions we should ask when reconsidering accessioned records (149):

  1. “First, let us ask ourselves the questions already mentioned: would we accession these records if they were offered today?  If we wouldn’t, why should we continue to keep them?”
  2. “Second, is there a reasonable expectation that anybody, with a serious purpose, will ever ask for these records?”
  3. “Third, what if, following this reasoning, we throw away records and the conceivable indeed occurs and we or our successors have a request for them from a serious researcher?  To anticipate and to allow for this, the best we can do, once we decide there is no reasonable expectation of use, is to ask ourselves: if we are wrong and someday somebody does come along who wants these records, will the requester or will scholarship in general be badly hurt because these particular records no longer exist?”