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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Jesse Helms’ 1972 concession speech

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A few weeks ago, news spread that an aide for Jesse Helms’ first campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina kept a copy of the concession speech that was written before the election returns came in.  Last year, he donated it to the Jesse Helms Center in Wingate, North Carolina, and the Center released it to commemorate the 45th anniversary of Helms’ election.  Both speeches can be viewed online.

Archivists involved in appraisal can lose sleep worrying about what might have been overlooked or was never deemed important enough to darken the doors of a repository.  Frank Boles provided some relevant commentary in his book Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts:

“Two final points about selection should be kept in mind.  First, archivists should be bold when selecting records for the archives.  Timidity and caution will quickly fill the archives’ shelves.  The desire never to be caught in a mistake must be weighed against the absolute reality that only so many things can be held in the archives.  Second, archivists should not lose sleep over the results of their boldness” (119-20).

“Appraising Public Records in an Ahistorical Culture”

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Although in a records management sense this article is dated, I can’t pass up the opportunity to review something entitled “Plowing the Sea: Appraising Public Records in an Ahistorical Culture.”  Roy Turnbaugh, who at the time this article was published in 1990 was the state archivist of Oregon, had some bold opinions about public records and archival work.

He began with a simple premise:

“Public records archivists work in a culture without a sense if history.  Government cares little about yesterday.  It functions in a kind of existential present” (563).

Based on a study he conducted in the mid-1980s, he concluded there was little that could be considered standard practice in the appraisal of state government records.  Some of his respondents prioritized informational value while others appraised based on evidential value; some sought to protect the rights of the state and its citizens while others focused on possible historical research.

Turnbaugh clearly disdained the use of any appraisal criteria that considered potential users.  He referred to the scholarly research community as “at best a marginal constituency” for state archives (564).  His simple answer to the problem of appraisal was that state archives “exist to make sure that the records of the significant actions of government are preserved” (565).

As someone who spent his career in state archives in Illinois and Oregon, Turnbaugh expressed a marked cynicism about government.  I find myself wondering if his analysis of public records wasn’t influenced by this mistrust of government in general.  I’ve documented in many SAA presidential addresses the schism between archivists and records managers (see Radoff, Grover), but I believe there’s a lot we can learn from each other.

To me, the bigger difference for government archivists and manuscript archivists is in the records creators.  Many donors to manuscript collections have developed a sense of self-importance that likely shapes many of their documents.  On the other hand, many government employees have a very siloed approach to their work that prevents them from seeing the big picture of how their records contribute to the overall functions of their agency.  Without this, these employees are unlikely to recognize the potential value of their records.

Here are the intersections between archival and records management work that I think are especially important for government records (or really any sort of institutional records):

  • Essential records.  The Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology defines essential records as “emergency-operating records immediately necessary to begin recovery of operations after a disaster, and rights-and-interests records necessary to protect the assets, obligations, and resources of the organization, as well as its employees and customers or citizens.”  Although not all essential records (e.g., payroll records) would be considered archival, from the standpoint of identifying and protecting vital records, this is still an important conversation for government archivists to have with records creators.
  • Institutional memory.  Any institution that is subject to employee turnover should care about institutional memory so that each successive generation of employees doesn’t wind up reinventing the wheel.  Good records management can help accomplish this — and in the long run, these records could likely provide the long-term context necessary for archival researchers investigating an institution.
  • Business planning.  As Lord Byron said, “The best of prophets of the future is the past.”  So for any institution that is in a planning stage, seeking out the records of the past can aid in figuring out what has worked well and what has failed dramatically.  And these documentations of successes and failures could be useful archival collections.

“I’ve Deaccessioned and Lived to Tell About It”

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Last year, I looked at the 1980s writing by Leonard Rapport and Karen Benedict on archival deaccessioning.  Now I’ll turn to Mark Greene’s 2006 piece in Archival Issues — subtitled “Confessions of an Unrepentant Reappraiser.”

The title pretty much sums up his attitude — reappraisal and deaccessioning are a necessary yet shunned part of the archival profession.  Rejecting the notion that deaccessioning can weaken archivists’ relationships with donors, Greene provides evidence from several repositories where he worked that markedly improved their relationships with donors through a reasoned and transparent reappraisal process.  Ultimately, he gave his donors more credit for seeing the bigger picture and found they had no qualms with his deaccessions of their donated materials.

Greene looked back to Gerald Ham’s analysis that reappraisal “‘allows archivists to replace records of lesser value with collections of more significance, and it prevents the imposition of imperfect and incomplete decisions of the past on the future'” (9).  Greene acknowledged that appraisal is subjective and based on “the institution’s goals, clientele, and resources at a given moment in time, and the individual personalities and proclivities of any given set of staff” (9).  Because all of these factors are subject to change, an appraisal decision today may not necessarily reinforce an appraisal decision from decades earlier — which, as Ham pointed out, may have been based on imperfect or incomplete information.  Yet there is a theoretical challenge to deaccessioning that is based on the notion that archives are bound to preserve materials permanently — which Greene dismissed with the explanation that archivists of the 21st century have embraced the terminology of “enduring preservation” rather than permanent preservation, acknowledging our inability to overcome all obstacles, both man-made and naturally occurring, that may prevent a literal preservation of materials for all time.

Greene explained that appraisal (and reappraisal) decisions can include factors such as potential use of the collection as well as allocations of staff, space, and other resources.  He concluded, “The archival profession is difficult (and necessary) not because we are good at saving things, but because we are able and willing to decide what does not get saved” (11).  Echoing the ideas of David Gracy that I reviewed last week, Greene suggested archivists have a responsibility to transform this perception of our profession and can do so by explaining our decisions with clarity and taking responsibility for the consequences of these decisions.

Greene identified several elements that are necessary for reappraisal and deaccessioning to occur:

  • formal policies and procedures
  • institutional mission statement
  • collecting policy
  • appraisal standards — “one cannot make intelligent decisions about what to deaccession if one is unclear about what to be accessioning in the first place” (12)

He cautioned against reappraising without an overall scheme in mind because “piecemeal deaccession greatly increases the risk that dramatically different decisions will be made from one collection or series to another” (13).  He included in the appendix part of the Collection Management Policy of the American Heritage Center (AHC), which lays out the conditions under which materials may be deaccessioned (17):

  1. “it is no longer relevant and useful to the mission of the AHC”
  2. “it cannot be properly stored, preserved, or used”
  3. “it no longer retains its physical integrity, identity, or authenticity”
  4. “it is unnecessarily duplicated in the collections”
  5. “it is part of a larger collection other portions of which are owned by another repository that makes its holdings accessible to the public”

While I applaud the notion of laying out the criteria for deaccessioning, I wonder if these conditions adequately address the sins of the fathers to which he alluded earlier in the article.  Perhaps the first criterion can be interpreted to handle materials that were accessioned without regard to their enduring value — yet it does imply the institutional mission has changed, which in my experience is not likely to happen in noticeable ways with any great regularity.  Greene acknowledged that many repositories operate without the guidance of a collecting policy, yet I wonder if collections that have been accessioned in a haphazard manner in the absence of any overarching collections plan fall into one of these five categories.  I’m afraid the next reappraisal challenge will be to develop a professional mechanism to acknowledge and undo the appraisal mistakes of the past — those incomplete and imperfect decisions of which Ham spoke.

“A Reply to Leonard Rapport”

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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.

“No Grandfather Clause: Reappraising Accessioned Records”

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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?”