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.



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Since I began this blog in 2013, I’ve had a self-imposed goal of posting new content on a weekly basis.  While I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to poke around a lot of topics related to archives and libraries, I’m increasingly realizing that this schedule precludes deeper dives into more substantive issues.  This by no means marks the end of this blog, but it does serve as notice that I’ll be transitioning to a less frequent schedule for posting.

In the meantime, if you find yourself in need of some historical information and insights, check out

The meaning of success

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“In most things success depends on knowing how long it takes to succeed.”

— Charles de Montesquieu, Pensées et fragments inédits

The end of a calendar year provides a good opportunity to reflect upon success.  This is sometimes easier for individuals, who can establish goals by which to measure the success of a year.  I have long been fascinated by workplace politics and whether individuals are evaluated holistically according to a standard or whether they are compared to their colleagues.

I personally find the former better, perhaps due to my years of employing the practice of holistic grading of essays; however, I find it an unusual approach outside the educational realm.  I liken it to coaches who can be disappointed with their teams after a victory because their players haven’t played to the standard expected of the team – despite being able to defeat the lesser competition of the day.  Yet this concept of holding individuals to an established standard rather than accepting the lowest common denominator seems too complicated for most to practice.

Archives are another issue when it comes to evaluation.  The University of Michigan, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of Toronto had a joint grant-funded project to develop archival metrics.  They developed toolkits so repositories can perform evaluations and share their results so they can be used for comparison with other repositories and in order to help develop best practices.  They include toolkits to gather feedback from on-site researchers and website users about facilities, services, finding aids, and websites.  They have also tailored evaluation tools for student researchers who participate in archival orientation sessions or class activities as well as for instructors who use archival services.  While most of these toolkits are aimed at university archives and special collections, there is a survey designed to measure the economic impact of government archives.  There is also a toolkit that depends on the use of focus groups to gather feedback.

This grant was funded for 2009-2010, but what’s not obvious from the website is whether the goal of having these toolkits be used to help shape best practices ever came to fruition.  While there are numerous publications listed on the website, they seem to be from grant investigators rather than from repositories who employed the toolkits.  Perhaps there’s more work to be done to determine the best ways to evaluate the success of archives.

“I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours.”

— Henry David Thoreau, Walden

“Mother to Son”

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I have found myself haunted by this verse:

“Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps
’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.”

Langston Hughes published this poem in 1926 in a book entitled The Weary Blues.  In his seminal work Harlem Renaissance, historian Nathan Irvin Huggins highlighted Hughes’ conception of:

“poetry as the music of the common people’s language, captured and tied to the images of their minds.  He saw himself and his poems as the means through which ordinary Negro men and women could become poets.  And, perhaps, he could be the means for others to see their own beauty, see themselves as artists” (78).

Huggins cited a 1926 article by Hughes published in The Nation that emphasized his embrace of the common man and his rejection of what he saw as the tendency for the black elite to identify with white culture.  Rather than needing to look elsewhere for inspiration, Hughes contended, “‘we have an honest American Negro literature already with us'” (204).

In this poem, Hughes employed a testimonial structure.  In his 1974 dissertation, Philip M. Royster concluded Hughes incorporated the mother’s ascent and her advice, “grounded in the authority of her own wisdom and experiences to persuade her son” (84).

The letters, manuscripts, and photographs of Hughes are available at the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Lessons learned

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I recently finished a years-long work project.  The details about the genesis of the project are available in a case study I wrote for SAA’s Government Records Section; for these purposes, suffice it to say that I was tasked with overhauling the mechanism of scheduling records for state agencies in North Carolina.  The decision was to embrace the principles of functional schedules, and here’s a representation of the results:

This project provided many opportunities for interactions with records custodians and other interested parties as well as for reflection on the process of generating records retention and disposition schedules.  Here are some initial thoughts — things I wish I’d known when I began this process.

  1. No one likes records management (RM).  Sure, those of us in the biz can extol the virtues of defensible destruction and costs savings, but with rare exceptions, it is not a priority for our constituents.  Needless to say, this means getting participation and buy-in are challenging.

    Jackie Esposito, Penn State University Archivist, recently published the result of her survey of records management within the institutions of the Big Ten.  She provided this overview:

    “These services and the expectations built therein are often subject to a ‘struggle to fit’ within a myriad of administrative offices in their effort to undertake compliance, retention, disposition, permanence, and disposal of business records. Among the challenges of institutional placement are issues such as failure to thrive, inability to enforce compliance, risk aversion, slow responsiveness to crisis/breach situations, failure to create a cohesive environment and culture, and communication collapse” (5).

    One of her conclusions about university RM could also have some interesting applications in other entities:

    “Institutional placement/administration of Records Management programs SHOULD be coordinated and partnered with other institutional compliance efforts such as Risk Management, Privacy, Internal Audit, and IT Security.  This may require moving RM programs out of academic units such as Libraries to strengthen the compliance oversight needs within an RM program” (8).

    In my experience, RM directives that originate from the office of the General Counsel, for example, are met with much more acceptance and quicker responses than those coming from administrative assistants.

  2. It’s hard to write a retention schedule on a blank canvas.  Understanding the work required of the entities whose records you’re scheduling along with the records created and received in that process is essential.  Best case scenario, you can work from a relatively up-to-date records inventory to inform your schedule.  Or maybe we need to figure out a way to have RM ride alongs to ensure records analysts have a good grasp of how records are used by their custodians.
  3. It’s hard to effect change.  Those involved in institutional change recognize the extremes of the early adopters versus those who’ll push back against change until they’re left with no options.  In the context of revamping how agency records are scheduled, this means those cutting their teeth in the RM game are likely more easily convinced of the benefits of a new system because they aren’t entrenched in the old system, while those who’ve become acclimated to the old way of managing records will be a harder sell.  In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”
  4. Try to anticipate the questions people will have about the new system and address them ahead of time — but also understand that some hand-holding will still be necessary and appropriate once it’s in place.
  5. There are a lot of legal aspects to RM, so make sure you have a good grasp of who’s generating records-related regulations at the state and federal levels and/or make sure you have a legal buddy who can help interpret inconsistencies and ambiguities.


Christmas carol context

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I have a Christmas album that makes reference to the 1942 Rose Bowl that was played in Durham because of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor less than a month earlier.  (See this article by the former Duke University archivist for more information on this game.)

Together with this week’s anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, I became curious about the Christmas songs that were written during World War Two.  (You’ll forgive my misappropriation of the term carol on my title for the purpose of alliteration!)

Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” was first played on the radio on Christmas Day 1941.  The following year, it was popularized in the film Holiday Inn with Bing Crosby and won an Academy Award.  Berlin originally wrote this song for a Broadway musical revue about American holidays, but the show was never produced.

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
Just like the ones I used to know
Where the treetops glisten
And children listen

To hear sleigh bells in the snow

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas
With every Christmas card I write
May your days be merry and bright
And may all your Christmases be white

Berlin was a Russian Jewish immigrant to the U.S., and his daughter suggested her father saw Christmas as an American cultural holiday more so than a religious one.  An author of a book on Berlin related the melancholy nature of this song to the tragedy Berlin endured on Christmas Day in 1928 when his 3-week-old son died.

Unfortunately, the original recording of this song has been lost.  According to a 2015 story by KUOW,

“The radio premiere of the song on Kraft Music Hall was lost or taped over.  Crosby’s original 1942 master recording – the version heard by troops overseas – wore out from overuse.  The most familiar version is from 1947, when Crosby re-recorded the song hoping to recapture the original magic.”

In 1943, Crosby recorded “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” which also became an award-winning song.  According to a Library of Congress article, this became the most requested song at Christmas U.S.O. shows in both Europe and the Pacific during World War II.  This song was written by Walter Kent (music) and James “Kim” Gannon (words).

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

I’ll be home for Christmas
You can plan on me
Please have snow and mistletoe
And presents on the tree

Christmas Eve will find me
Where the lovelight gleams
I’ll be home for Christmas
If only in my dreams

Archival weeding

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As I’ve commented before, most people don’t understand the term archival, so it stands to reason they also have no knowledge of the archival practice of weeding.  Looking up this term in the SAA Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology results in five related terms.  There are two terms that are applied at the item-level:

  • weeding: The process of identifying and removing unwanted materials from a larger body of materials
  • culling: The process of pulling and disposing of unwanted materials

Although the definitions vary little, three additional terms indicate removal of materials at the folder level or higher:

  • purging: The process of pulling and disposing of unwanted materials
  • stripping: The process of pulling and disposing of unwanted materials in a series
  • screening: The process of reviewing materials in a collection for classified, confidential, or private information that should be restricted

I think many donor agreements have language that indicates what should happen with any items that are weeded from a donation.  But I wonder about the understanding of records creators who transfer records to the archives according to a retention and disposition schedule rather than by donor agreement.  None of the five terms listed above includes any citations in the SAA Glossary, so I’m left to believe this topic is not frequently addressed in the archival literature.  Perhaps I can dig into some processing manuals on another day to discover if there is any required or recommended communication when this sort of weeding occurs.

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