Thursday, 24 January 2013

Appraisal: To be or not to be that is the question?

Previously, I mentioned a large amount of material from Falmouth University Marketing Department which had arrived following a clear out of old records (8th October, A Surprise). The quantity involved is substantial and so since then we have gradually been going through repackaging the items and listing them, but before any of this could be completed there is an important process for the material to go through, Appraisal.

Appraisal is the process of identifying '...the documents to be continuously preserved for an unlimited period of time.' (1) That is, a selection of records considered to be of value for long term preservation. It is then the action on which the development of an archive or collection is fundamentally reliant, so it is perhaps unsurprising that it has been described as the archivist's 'first responsibility'. (2) Yet, there are no hard and fast rules as to how to carry out appraisal. There is no step by step guide, rather it is something Archivists learn through practice and familiarity with records and their collections. With this in mind, it was a challenging task to be faced with the mountain of records and the decision as to what should be kept and what should be destroyed.

Archivists destroying material may seem an anathema of the purpose of the profession and yet the sheer quantity of records in existence today has made this decision necessary, indeed vital. It is a conundrum which has led the profession to struggle with this '..schizophrenic dilemma which we feel would not face us in the ideal world.' (3) This has been further exacerbated by the conflicting and deeply ingrained attitudes of past archival theorists; one of the first and leading theorists in the UK being Sir Hilary Jenkinson.

In 1922, Jenkinson's A Manual of Archive Administration was published exploring the issues around the management of a war archive following the First World War. In this work Jenkinson sought to explore the nature and characteristics of archives and subsequently the role of the archivist. He defined an archive as a document which

'...was drawn up or used in the course of an administrative or executive transaction (whether public or private) of which itself formed a part; and subsequently preserved in their own custody for their own information by the person or persons responsible for that transaction and their legitimate successors' (4)

This definition evolved from two important characteristics Jenkinson considered vital to the very nature of an archive: impartiality and authenticity. Authenticity was derived from the maintenance of an official custodial chain. Impartiality was, however, to place the onus of selection with the creator of the records and deny the Archivist any influence over selection of records or institutional policy. This would therefore maintain the neutrality of the Archivist so endowing the collection with the quality of impartiality and hence its value. The Archivist's role was confined to two main duties; the first was to protect these important archival qualities and the second to meet the needs of researchers and historians to the best of their ability. (5) Jenkinson firmly believed that the Archivist's role should be a passive one and it was this passivity which contributed towards the archival value of the records in their care.

Some years later, in America,  a man by the name of Theodore Schellenburg published his Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques (1956). Schellenburg recognised the mass of material was ever increasing and attempted to produce a system enabling selection of material in order to maintain the manageability of an archive. This he did through the application of value to the records; completely in opposition to Jenkinson. A record's primary value was related to its initial function and reason for production. In other words it had a use for its creator. The secondary value was its cultural and historical value to others and this was again broken down into two subsets: evidential and informational. Evidential value was the records ability as evidence of an organisations functions and structure, whereas informational value referred to the records content and how useful it would be for future historians and researchers. It was this secondary value which changed a record into an archive by necessitating its selection for long term preservation. (7) For Schellenburg the Archivist was an important participant in the process of selection, working with record creators to select and preserve those records deemed to embody secondary values.

With respect to Jenkinson, if I applied his theory to the University Records which the service has just received, then we would be bound to accept every document which the marketing department transferred. I would be unable to make any judgement as to whether a document was important enough to keep. Whilst this application of value systems is controversial it is inevitable. Postmodernism has shattered the idyll of an archive as a neutral record of the past. As Terry Cook succinctly stated 'We are What we Keep; We Keep What We Are'. (6) Any archive or archivist is a product of societal values and norms. If we follow Jenkinson's ideal, instead of keeping what we estimate to be 35-40 boxes of material, we would have to find storage for possibly 4-5 times that amount; much of which may be found in other repositories, for example large folders of newspaper articles or records from other companies such as marketing catalogues irrelevant to the institution's past.

So does this mean that available space is dictating what and how much is kept? I think every Archivist is aware of the amount of room available, after all space is finite; it will run out.However, even if we had space to save every record produced would we really choose to do so?

With that comes the difficulty of managing an unwieldy amount of material. Excessive records means increased storage and increased resources which may result in the neglect of other archival matter of greater significance or rarity. There are very few, if any, archive services who although carrying out appraisal, do not have a backlog of material waiting to be catalogued. Imagine the situation if appraisal was considered unprofessional, even unethical and everything deposited was kept regardless. Schellenburg's secondary value is a pragmatic approach to what was becoming a real issue at the time, that is the quantity of material; however, the application of value is in direct conflict with the attributed characteristics of archival material and hence archival theory unless, as Duranti points out, use becomes the qualifying element. (8) This idea that archivists should try to predict future research topics and essentially react to the changing needs of historical scholarship has been heavily criticised within the profession ever since Jenkinson (9). It is then of little wonder that appraisal remains such a controversial and unsettled issue.

How would you choose which records should be kept?

1 Luciana Duranti,'The Concept of Appraisal and Archival Theory', American Archivist, 57 (Spring 1994)328-344 p329.
2 Helen Samuels and Richard Cox, 'The Archivist's First Responsibility: A Research Agenda to Improve the identification and retention of Records of Enduring Value,'American Archivist 51 (Winter-Spring 1988) quoted in Terry Cook, 'We Are What We Keep; We Keep What We Are': Archival Appraisal Past, Present and Future, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 32, 2, (October 2011) 173-189, p174.
3 Felix Hull, 'The Appraisal of documents - problems and pitfalls', Journal of the Society of Archivists, 6, 5, (1980) 287-290, p287.
4 Jenkinson, Hilary, A Manual of Archive Administration, (Oxford: Clarendon 1922) p11.
5 Jenkinson, A Manual of Archive Administration, p15.
6 Terry Cook,'We Are What We Keep; We keep What We Are': Archival Appraisal Past, Present and Future, Journal of the Society of Archivists, 32, 2, (October 2011) 173-189.
7 Reto Tschan, 'A Comparison of Jenkinson and Schellenburg on Appraisal', The American Archivist, 65, (fall/winter 2002) p176-195.
8 Duranti,'The Concept of Appraisal and Archival Theory',p339.
9 Jenkinson, A Manual of Archive Administration, p22. F. Gerald Ham, 'The Archival Edge', The American Archivist', Vol 38, No.1, (1975), pp5-13.

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