Archival appraisal

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Appraisal, in the context of archival science and archive administration, is a process usually conducted by a member of the record-holding institution (often a professional archivist) in which a body of records is examined to determine its value for that institution. When it occurs prior to acquisition, the appraisal process involves assessing records for inclusion in the archives. In connection with an institution's collecting policy, appraisal "represents a doorway into the archives through which all records must pass."[1] 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, along with acquisition, arrangement and description, preservation and access. 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.[2]

Appraisal can be viewed as a balancing act between the demands of administrative and heritage objectives; between the context of creation and the use of records.[3] Depending on the degree of her or his autonomy to make appraisal decisions, an archivist's role is more or less central to the memory of an institution or society. Jacques Grimard sees archivists as participating in the "management of the world's memory" in three ways, by developing, preserving and communicating memory.[3] In Luciana Duranti's view, appraisal is an analogue for the archival profession as a whole. It is the duty of the profession to "act as a mediator between those who produce archives and those who use them, as a facilitator of public memory making and keeping." She is cautious in her use of the term value in the context of archives, if establishing value means compromising the relationships between documents and the "impartial societal evidence" they might convey to future generations. [4]

History of appraisal theory[edit]

Muller, Feith & Fruin: the Dutch Manual, 1898[edit]

Mostly concerned with the records of government bodies, the Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives: Drawn up by the Netherlands Association of Archivists (1898), commonly referred to as the "Dutch Manual," assumed, generally, that the archives would keep each record it acquired.[5] The authors articulated concepts of provenance and original order that privileged an "organic bond" in a collection that precedes its transfer to an archival repository. Appraisal decisions that involve selecting individual records or groups of records for exclusion would consequently lie outside the responsibilities of the archivist, in their view.[6]

Sir Hilary Jenkinson, 1922[edit]

Sir Hilary Jenkinson was a British archivist and Deputy Keeper of the Public Record Office upon his retirement. His great contribution to appraisal theory is his Manual of Archive Administration (1922; revised 1937; reissued 1965) in which he argued 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".[7]

Jenkinson staked out a limited role for the archivist, positioned between the administrative body transferring the records and the researcher who might seek to access them. The archivist, according to Jenkinson, is to act as a steward of the records in his or her custody. Neither the archivist nor the historian is competent to make appraisal decisions. That process should be left to the donor. Jenkinson deals directly with destruction of records, which he sees as solely the purview of the creator of those records. As long as destruction is done in accordance with the needs of its "practical business" and the agency of origin refrains "from thinking of itself as a body producing historical evidence", its actions should not, in Jenkinson's view, be considered illegitimate, even by succeeding generations.[8]

T. R. Schellenberg, 1956[edit]

T. R. Schellenberg's work in Modern Archives (1956) 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 the value of records 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.[9]

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[edit]


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.

Macro-appraisal is distinguished from micro-appraisal in that the former seeks to appraise the institution by understanding the context of creation and the interrelationships between, for instance, the different ministries or agencies within a government. In Cook's view, this institutional understanding should precede and inform the latter, micro-appraisal; the appraisal of documents. His approach to macro-appraisal doesn't just derive from the position of the creating body within an established hierarchy. It is not top-down in a conventional, bureaucratic sense. It is top-down in that it moves from macro to micro-appraisal.[3]

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.

Macroappraisal assesses the societal value of both the functional-structural context and the work-place culture in which the records are created and used by the creator(s), and the interrelationship of citizens, groups, organizations – the "public" – with that functional-structural context. If appraisal designates the long-term value of the context of records, or series of records, for their potential research values, macroappraisal assesses the significance of the context of their creation and contemporary use.

— Terry Cook, "Macroappraisal in Theory and Practice: Origins, Characteristics, and Implementation in Canada, 1950–2000[10]

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).

Documentation strategy[edit]

Connected with the writings of Helen Willa 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).[11] 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.

Further reading[edit]

  • Jenkinson, Hilary (1937) [1922]. A Manual of Archive Administration. London: Percy Lund, Humphries and Co.
  • Schellenberg, Theodore R. (1996) [1956]. Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Schellenberg, Theodore R. (1999) [1956]. The Appraisal of Modern Records. Bulletin of the National Archives. 8. Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration.
  • Mason, Karen M. (2002). "Fostering diversity in archival collections: the Iowa Women's Archives". Collection Management. 27 (2): 23–32.
  • Samuels, Helen (1991–92). "Improving our disposition: documentation strategies". Archivaria. 33: 125–40.CS1 maint: Date format (link)
  • Cook, Terry (2005). "Macroappraisal in theory and practice: origins, characteristics, and implementation in Canada, 1950–2000". Archival Science. 5 (2–4): 101–61.
  • Boles, Frank (2005). Selecting and Appraising Archives & Manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists. pp. 43–73. ISBN 978-1-931666-11-4.
  • Ridener, John (2009). From Polders to Postmodernism: a concise history of archival theory. Duluth, Minnesota: Litwin Books. ISBN 978-0-9802004-5-4.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ O'Toole, James M. & Cox, Richard J. (2006). Understanding archives & manuscripts. Chicago: Society of American Archivists. p. 120. ISBN 9781931666206. OCLC 70054151.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
  2. ^ Pearce-Moses, Richard (2005). A Glossary of Archival & Records Terminology. Chicago, IL: Society of American Archivists. p. 22.
  3. ^ a b c Couture, Carol (Spring 2005). "Archival appraisal: A status report". Archivaria. 59: 102–103.
  4. ^ Duranti, Luciana (Spring 1994). "The concept of appraisal and archival theory". American Archivist. 57: 341–344.
  5. ^ Muller, Samuel; Fruin, R.; Feith, Johan Adriaan (1940). Manual for the arrangement and description of archives : drawn up by direction of the Netherlands Association of Archivists. New York: The H. W. Wilson company. p. 225. Retrieved 16 January 2016.
  6. ^ Eastwood, Terry (2017). Currents of archival thinking (2nd ed.). Santa Barbara, California: Libraries Unlimited. pp. 7–8. ISBN 9781440839092. OCLC 961923754.
  7. ^ Jenkinson, Hilary (1937) [1922]. A Manual of Archive Administration. London: Percy Lund, Humphries and Co. pp. 4, 12, 145–7, 149–52.
  8. ^ Kolsrud, Ole (Winter 1992). "The evolution of basic appraisal principles – some comparative observations". American Archivist. 55: 27–28. JSTOR 40293622.
  9. ^ Schellenberg, Theodore R. (1956). Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
  10. ^ Cook, Terry (December 2005). "Macroappraisal in Theory and Practice: Origins, Characteristics, and Implementation in Canada, 1950–2000". Archival Science. 5 (2): 101–161. doi:10.1007/s10502-005-9010-2.
  11. ^ Samuels, Helen (1986). "Who Controls the Past". The American Archivist. Spring. 49 (2): 109–124. JSTOR 40292980.