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In the archival sense, appraisal is a process usually conducted by a member of the record-holding institution (often a professional archivist) in which a body of records are examined to determine their value. Some considerations when conducting appraisal include how to meet the record-granting body’s organizational needs, how to uphold requirements of organizational accountability (be they legal, institutional, or determined by archival ethics), and how to meet the expectations of the record-using community.
Appraisal is considered a core archival function (alongside acquisition, arrangement and description, preservation, reference, and public programming) although the task of records appraisal is somewhat slippery and can occur within the process of acquiring records, during arrangement and description, and for the sake of preservation; further, public programming projects often prompt the reappraisal process. The official definition from the Society of American Archivists is as follows:
“In an archival context, appraisal is the process of determining whether records and other materials have permanent (archival) value. Appraisal may be done at the collection, creator, series, file, or item level. Appraisal can take place prior to donation and prior to physical transfer, at or after accessioning. The basis of appraisal decisions may include a number of factors, including the records' provenance and content, their authenticity and reliability, their order and completeness, their condition and costs to preserve them, and their intrinsic value. Appraisal often takes place within a larger institutional collecting policy and mission statement.”
History of appraisal theory
Muller, Feith & Fruin – Dutch Manual, 1898
Mostly concerned with the records of government bodies, the Dutch Manual assumed, generally, that the archives would keep each record it acquired. Before the era of mass duplication, this text was primarily concerned with the arrangement and description of records.
Sir Hilary Jenkinson, 1922
Sir Hilary Jenkinson was the Deputy Keeper of the Public Record Office during the early twentieth century. His best-known work, entitled Manual of Archive Administration, argues that archives are “documents which formed part of an official transaction and were preserved for official reference.” For Jenkinson, the records creator is responsible for determining which records should be transferred to the archives for preservation. Since in his view records are “impartial” the task of selection is merely a matter of choosing documents that best describe “what happened”.
T. R. Schellenberg, 1956
T. R. Schellenberg authored Modern Archives in 1956, and represents a departure from Jenkinson’s approach, necessitated by the advent of mass duplication and an overwhelming influx of documents into archives. In his work, he divides records' values into primary values (the original value for the creator for their administrative, fiscal, and operating uses) and secondary values (their lasting value after they are no longer in current use, for those other than the original creator). He defines evidential value as deriving from the "evidence records contain of the organization and functioning of the Government body that produced them," and informational value as related to the "information records contain on persons, corporate bodies, things, problems, conditions, and the like, with which the Government body dealt." After defining the terms, Schellenberg details the manner in which an archivist could perform appraisal based on these criteria, placing a stress in every case on the importance of research and analysis on the part of the archivist.
According to Schellenberg, informational value is based on three criteria:
- Uniqueness: The information in the record cannot be found anywhere else and must also be unique in form (i.e., not duplicated elsewhere).
- Form: An archivist must, according to Schellenberg, consider the form of the information (the degree to which the information is concentrated) as well as the form of the records itself (whether or not they can easily be read by others, e.g., punchcards and tape recordings would involve the use of expensive machinery to decipher).
- Importance: When appraising records, one must judge records first based on the needs of the government itself, then on the needs of historians/social scientists, as well as local historians and genealogists; he encourages archivists to be wary of records with sentimental value.
Some current approaches to appraisal
According to Terry Cook, North American appraisal theory is unplanned, taxonomic, random and fragmented, and has rarely embodied the concepts of institutional and societal dynamics which would lead archivists to a working model that would allow them to appraise the broad spectrum of human experience.
His model is a top-down approach, which focuses on key processes through which a particular function is expressed by intersecting with structures and individuals.
This requires a planned, logical approach—archivists embarking upon appraisals are equipped with an understanding of the record creator, its mandate and functions, its structure and decision-making processes, the way it creates records, and changes to these processes over time.
The benefits of this process are theoretical (identifying the important functions in society which should be documented) and practical (the ability to focus appraisal activities on records of the highest potential archival value).
Connected with the writings of Helen Samuels, documentation strategy aims to reach beyond institutional frameworks when appraising collections. In the past, she says, archivists have been passive, concentrating on researchers’ needs rather than understanding a document in context. This has led to a circular problem, as researchers state their needs based on the context that they deduce from the archives, and as the archives create an artificial context based on researchers’ stated needs. “Archivists are challenged to select a lasting record,” Samuels says, “but they lack techniques to support this decision making” (1992). Samuels argues that while archivists once needed to know and understand the complex bureaucratic structures of organizations, they must now understand the structures between organizations and ignore institutional boundaries.
However, this is increasingly impossible; archivists need to examine documentation in a comprehensive manner. A documentation strategy is, then, "a plan formulated to assure the documentation of an ongoing issue, activity or geographic area" (ibid). Its development includes records creators, archivists, and users, and it is carried out through a system-wide understanding of the intended life-cycle of the record.
- Jenkinson, Hilary. A Manual of Archive Administration. London: Percy Lund, Humphries and Co., 1965. (first published 1922.)
- Schellenberg, Theodore R., The Appraisal of Modern Public Records, National Archives Bulletin 8 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Service, 1956).
- Schellenberg, Theodore R., Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956) 1996 reprint online.
- Mason, Karen M., Fostering Diversity in Archival Collections: The Iowa Women’s Archives, Collection Management; 27 (2) 2002, pp. 23–32.
- Samuels, Helen, Improving Our Disposition: Documentation Strategies, Archivaria 33 (Winter 1991-92): 125-40.
- Cook, Terry, Macroappraisal in Theory and Practice: Origins, Characteristics, and Implementation in Canada, 1950–2000, Archival Science 5:2-4 (2005) 101-61.
- Boles, Frank, Selecting and Appraising Archives & Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists (2005): 43-73 ISBN 978-1-931666-11-4
- Ridener, John. From Polders to Postmodernism: A Concise History of Archival Theory. Duluth, MN: Litwin Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9802004-5-4
- Library and Archives Canada - Appraisal Methodology: Macro-Appraisal and Functional Analysis - Part A: Concepts and Theory
- Library and Archives Canada - Appraisal Methodology: Macro-Appraisal and Functional Analysis - Part B: Guidelines for Performing an Archival Appraisal on Government Records
- National Archives of Australia – Appraisal
- National Archives of the United Kingdom – Appraisal Policy
- National Archives and Records Administration (United States) – Appraisal Policy
- Danish State Archives – Appraisal and Transfer of Records from Public Authorities
- Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). A Glossary of Archival & Records Terminology. Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists. p. 22.
- Jenkinson, Hilary (1922). A Manual of Archive Administration. London: Percy Lund, Humphries and Co.
- Schellenberg, Theodore R. (1956). Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
- Samuels, Helen (1986). "Who Controls the Past". The American Archivist. Spring 49 (2): 109–124. JSTOR 40292980.