Karen Benedict provided a response to Rapport’s seminal work on deaccessioning in the Winter 1984 issue of the American Archivist — entitled “Invitation to a Bonfire: Reappraisal and Deaccessioning of Records as Collection Management Tools in an Archives.”  Benedict began working as an archivist for the Nationwide Insurance Companies in 1975 and later worked as an archival consultant for the Winthrop Group.

Benedict did acknowledge that every repository has records that should never have been accessioned and that sometimes records are accepted in hopes of getting better ones later.  Yet she argued that “broad-scale reappraisal and deaccessioning of records should be viewed as crisis management techniques that may seriously undermine an archival program if they are applied” (44).  She suggested two reasons to avoid deaccessioning archival records:

  1. The “dismantling of archival holdings” (45) might suggest to the non-archivists who control institutions that they can jettison holdings any time they need to save money.
  2. Evaluating archival value is always a judgment call, so there’s an element of hubris in thinking one’s new evaluation is more valid than that of the earlier appraiser.

Benedict charged that reappraisal applies transitory criteria to evaluate the enduring value of records.  To counter Rapport’s argument that the research use of records should factor into their remaining in the collection, she asserted, “It is a-historical and anti-intellectual to determine that, because a group of records has not been used within a limited period of time, those records are valueless and should be disposed of by the institution holding them” (47-48).  Instead, she said that appraisal should occur before accessioning — at that point alone the research value and connections to existing collections should be evaluated.  She concluded,

“Our society does place a value upon the maintenance of the records of its institutions, and that is what makes the archivist’s job significant.  Society feels that it is not the amount of research conducted in archival records that determines their value but rather the contribution to human knowledge and to the public good that result.  We need to keep this uppermost in our minds.  We
have a responsibility to identify and to preserve the records that will afford researchers, not only in our lifetimes but in the future, the widest opportunity to conduct the studies that will enrich and benefit society” (49).

I do agree with Benedict’s point that archival decision-making should remain in the hands of archivists and should not primarily be based on financial concerns.  And in a perfect world, records would be properly appraised before they are accessioned, and those without enduring value would never cross the threshold.  But in reality, many institutions are being hamstrung by the sins of the fathers and are bearing not only financial but also personnel and space costs; these repositories should not be required to retain materials that are not truly archival in nature just because a predecessor did not carry out due diligence.  To her point about the danger of shifting appraisal standards, I would counter that lack of use is a perfectly good reason to deaccession materials.  We are long past the stage of being the keepers of all materials records creators deign to deposit at an archive, and I believe the primary purpose of preserving archival materials is to allow for their access.  Presuming the repository has made adequate effort to make the materials discoverable to researchers, if they have not been used, this should raise questions about their long-term value.  Gerald Ham, most notably, cautioned archivists against deferring to the priorities of researchers; otherwise, we might become nothing more than “a weathervane moved by the changing winds of historiography.”  But at the same time, repositories do need to reserve the right to respond with agility to changing circumstances; consider what collections would not have been preserved if archivists had not embraced electronic records as a medium.  And unlike Benedict, I do not assume deaccessioning indicates shifting appraisal standards; instead, I recognize it may at times be necessary to rectify a prior total lack of standards.