Thursday, 21 February 2013

Appraisal and the digital avalanche

Preservation of digital records has become one of the chief concerns for Archives everywhere and so it has been with interest that I began to look at this topic during my recent archive course module. One of the issues that has arisen is of course how to deal with the mass of digital material available which made me re-examine appraisal and the archival mission.

One of the contentious issues to arise and for which the profession has faced accusations of elitism during the last forty years, is its apparent failure to fully represent society . It was in 1970 that Howard Zinn addressed the Society of American Archivists and heavily critised current trends which saw the rich and powerful of society represented whilst the 'poor and impotent...[were condemned to]...archival obscurity'.(1) This was supported by other professionals including the President of the SAA, F. Gerald Ham. Ham stated the most important duty of the Archivist is to '...make an informed selection of information that will provide the future with a representative record of human experience in our time.'(2) He went on to question the very existence of the profession if '...we are not helping people understand the world they live in, and if this is not what archives is all about, then I do not know what it is we are doing that is all that important.'(3)

Writing in 2001 Johnston reported an improved situation in America but remained somewhat scathing of the situation in the UK. He suggested representation remained an issue which he attributed to the lack of debate in this country surrounding those actions which should encompas the archival mission, and went on to voice Ham's belief that for some in the profession the archival role remained a purely custodial one, as proposed by Jenkinson, and discussed in 'Appraisal To be or not to be', [Jan 24th]. (4) Whilst issues around representation have improved, appraisal has remained a necessary practice to prevent repositories becoming overun with material, a fact which is now further exacerbated by the digital issue.

So, with records threatening to swamp our repositories and with the lack of resources to inspect each file individually  in order that we may reflect fully the society we live in, how do we select archives and ensure adequate coverage is achieved.

Recently, I came across an article which put forward a fairly radical theory to address this very problem. It was by Robert Neumayer and Andreas Rauber of Vienna University of Technology, and was presented as a provocative position paper which certainly achieved its end, raising a number of interesting points and concerns. In essence it proposed that every nth record should be kept, a number dependant on the size of repository, and the rest discarded. The authors claim this would address representation by removing the Archivist's judgement of what should be selected for preservation, and in so doing, eradicate appraisal's natural inclination to favour dominant societal values.(5)

 In essence this returns to the Jenkinsonian premise of archival survival being guided by chance.  Whilst it seems to deal with the problem of mass, essentially it removes any responsibility of the Archivist in his/her role to represent society and make informed decisions about appraisal. It is this which the author's suggest will facilitate representation, however such a system can only be applied to the records which make it to the repository for selection which in no way ensures fair and equal representation.The profession has long struggled with how appraisal should be carried out and continues to search for the holy grail of standards or rules to guide the process. This is an attractive theory from this perspective, but also a troubling one. The Authors suggest random selection would deliver a high level of privacy protection, yet this is largely thanks to the imcomplete nature of the information. There is also that nagging doubt that whilst you may be preserving a rather nondescript invoice in the right hand, there is that ever present danger that in the left you throw away the Magna Carta of the future.

(1) Ian Johnston, 'Whose history is it anyway?',  Journal of the Society of Archivists, Vol. 22, No. 2 2001, p213.
(2) F. Gerald Ham, 'The Archival Edge', The American Archivist, January 1975, p1.
(3) Ham, p13.
(4) Ham,  'The Archival Edge', quoted in Johnston, 'Whose history is it anyway?',p216.
(5) Robert Neumayer and Andreas Rauber, 'Why Appraisal is not Utterly Useless and why it's not the Way to Go either.' [Accessed 18/2/2013]