Archival Principles: Context

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block CLast week, I began reflecting on some key archival principles.  Having already considered appraisal, now I turn to context.  (If you’ve visited here before, you’ll recognize that context is an important concept for me — check the category on the right for other related posts.)

The SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines context in two ways:

1. The organizational, functional, and operational circumstances surrounding materials’ creation, receipt, storage, or use, and its relationship to other materials.

2. The circumstances that a user may bring to a document that influences that user’s understanding of the document.

The note accompanying these definitions explains that context, along with content and structure, is one of the fundamental aspects of a record.  My own professional context is that I’m currently working in records management, so it makes sense context is on my brain.  The first of these definitions lends itself to connecting with another archival concept, that of original order.  In the best of all possible worlds, archivists commit themselves to preserving the original order of documents, with this notion that the organization provided by the records’ creator helps to provide some relevant context for them.  Of course, occasionally, documents are transferred to a repository absent of any discernible order or disheveled from a crisis or a move, so this is not always possible.

In my opinion, the second definition is too narrow.  It reflects the postmodernist notion of reader-response theory, acknowledging that the experiences, biases, and expectations of archival users can impact how they understand a document.  But I think the very context of a document’s creation — when, by and for whom, why, where — also bears on the interpretation of that document.  For more on this, come back in a few weeks to learn about Organization.

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Archival Principles: Appraisal

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It’s been a little while since I gave up my weekly posting schedule on this blog, but with this being a season for discipline, I’ve determined it’s a good time for me to try to put into layman’s terms the principles of archival work.

archival principles blocksThere could be debate about what deserves to be in this list, but these are the concepts that will undergird my six-week arc.

block AIn the SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology, the first two definitions for appraisal have the most relevance for my discussion:

1. The process of identifying materials offered to an archives that have sufficient value to be accessioned.

2. The process of determining the length of time records should be retained, based on legal requirements and on their current and potential usefulness.

The former definition applies more to special collections, while the latter shapes the records retention and disposition schedules common in government or corporate settings that identify those records with enduring value that deserve to be preserved in an archive.  In both cases, appraisal decisions should be made in light of the repository’s collection policy, which should define the scope and focus of collecting priorities.

While archival repositories generally shy away from monetary appraisal of collections, there is no doubt still a type of valuation that occurs in the appraisals conducted at archives.  This makes many nervous — fearing that “right” documents may be overlooked while the “wrong” ones are preserved — and so they cling to the 1930s notion that the integrity, authenticity, and impartiality of records can only be guaranteed when there is no intervention by an archivist in a selection process.

Yet even with the resulting discomfort, many archivists recognize this all-encompassing approach to archival collections is impossible in face of the quantity of modern documentation.  Although it remains to be seen whether born-digital records will turn all of this on its head, for the time being, the reigning post-World War Two archival idea is that records collected by an archives should be those with long-term reference and research value.  While reference value tends to correspond to the primary value of the records, research value can generate wildly tangential secondary values for records.  Just think, for example, of how the meticulous records maintained by German soldiers at World War Two concentration camps have been used to prove charges of genocide.

Needless to say, secondary research values can be difficult to predict and are prone to fluctuations based on current methodologies and topics of interest.  To prevent being whipped about changing priorities, archives must have clear collection policies that can inform these appraisal decisions.  Whether it’s the appraisal conducted by a special collections repository that is offered a collection or the up-front appraisal incorporated into a retention and disposition schedule, they can both be sheltered from criticism by the existence of a clear collection policy.

Appraisal is an archival principle that should be embraced, not avoided.  Good reasoned decisions must be made by professionals in order to avoid the accumulation of disjointed and haphazard collections of materials that will not be intellectually accessible to researchers nor necessary for the records creators.  While errors in judgment may occur from time to time, archivists should not be frozen into inaction out of fear of not identifying the greatest-letter-of-all-time.  Come back in future weeks to see how other archival principles can help to inform these appraisal decisions.