Archival appraisal is a core archival function by which records are selected for long-term preservation as archives by analysing their value. The two quotations above testify to a marked shift in appraisal theory over the last century. Given the changes in the nature of records, record-creating organisations, record-keeping systems, record uses and wider cultural, legal, technological, social and philosophical trends in society over this time, it would be surprising if such a shift had not taken place (T. Cook, 1997, p.3).
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The development of appraisal theory is influenced by the context in which individual theorists lived and worked. This continued evolution also reflects the adaptation of theory to deal with new challenges. This essay provides a chronological overview of the dominant appraisal theories of the twentieth century, accompanied by critical comment on their advantages and limitations. We will also discuss the usefulness and relevance of these theories for archival practice today.
Cook indentifies three models for appraisal theory (T. Cook, 1999, p.4). The distinction between these models differs according to how, and by whom, the value of records is determined. The proponent of the first model was Hilary Jenkinson in A Manual of Archive Administration, first published in 1922. Jenkinson describes what he sees as the essential characteristics of archives. Viewing archives as both impartial and authentic, because they had been created primarily for administrative purposes and then kept in official custody, Jenkinson saw archivists as guardians of impartial evidence. Proposing record creators should cull documents before they enter the archive, he viewed records as entering the archive by a ‘natural process’. Archival appraisal was a ‘disagreeable necessity’, but for the records creator, not the archivist. The contents of Jenkinson’s archive were decided a priori. Yet appraisal is crucial in contemporary archives:
In a society where we cannot cope with the volumes of information we are creating, surely the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff according to impartial predefined rules must represent a precious skill indeed?
(Bailey, 2007, p.120).
Jenkinson’s views were informed by his experiences as Deputy Keeper of the Public Record Office. Craig argues that Jenkinson’s knowledge of records at the Public Record Office (which covered several centuries and reflected many changes in administration) led him to doubt that reducing duplication of information could be a basis for selecting records to be kept (1999, p.62). His interest was in medieval and early modern state records, of which there are relatively few, compared to those records of the twentieth century. In Jenkinson’s environment, selection is inappropriate. The loss of a single item could mean the loss of the only clue to a particular connection to other documents of the same period (Boles & Greene, 1996, pp.306-307).
Archivists may disagree with Jenkinson but his contribution to the subject should not be underestimated. His reinforcement of the theory surrounding original order created archives with context. His interest was confined to medieval and early modern state records, of which there were relatively few. The fact that a loss of a single item might mean the loss of the connection to other surviving documents informed his aversion to appraisal. Nevertheless, Jimmerson (2005) has argued that Jenkinson “set an unattainable ideal of the archivist as one who served researchers but never engaged in interpretation of the records”. It is Jenkinson’s denials of appraisal and subjectivity which should leave contemporary archivists cause for concern.
Jenkinson did acknowledge that the huge increase in the volume of records generated by government during the First World War made some selection unavoidable, but argued this function was the responsibility of the creators of records. Both Cook and Craig have stated that Jenkinson’s experience in the British Civil Service, populated by people educated at public schools and likely to have a strong ethos of public service, explains his faith in government administrators who could be trusted with exercising disinterested judgements in terms of record preservation (Craig, 1999, pp.63-64; T. Cook, 1997, p.7).
The recommendations of the 1954 Grigg Report derived from Jenkinson’s work, judging that the main burden of archival work, appraisal and listing should be undertaken by the government departments from which the records originated (Cook, 1999, p.83). In Australia in the 1980s, the continuum thinking model has guided most National Archives from selection towards records management and recognised the need for more active intervention than Jenkinson envisaged. Yet positivist approaches still have support today – arguably more in the record management arena. The InterPARES Project in Canada is a clear example with the Project Director, Luciana Duranti, supporting Jenkinson’s theory that archivists are the custodians and preservers of societal evidence rather than the documenters of society. She sees their role as mediators between those who create archives and those who use them (1994, p.343).
Jenkinson has often been criticised for advocating a passive approach to appraisal, for allowing the record creator to define the value of the record. Due to the increasing volumes of records contemporary archivists have to deal with, they can no longer afford to be passive. By placing responsibility for selection on the record creator, Jenkinson sanctions the destruction of records by the creator or subsequent owner for any reason (T. Cook, 1999, p.5). This is a dangerous policy. It undermines the accountability of the administrator and could lead to serious abuses by those in power who do not want their actions to be made known. There have been several cases of this in the twentieth century, and, as Boles and Greene have commented, we now have fewer illusions about the impartiality of government or corporate administrators (1996, p.303).
The second model of appraisal theory has been articulated by Theodore Schellenberg. He was influenced by the work of Margaret Cross Norton and Philip Brooks in the 1940s who identified the need for the selection of records in order to reduce bulk. The concept of the records life cycle arose from their concern about leaving responsibility for selection in the hands of the records creators, and they advocated closer relationships between those caring for active and semi-active records, and archivists caring for records chosen for long-term preservation (T. Cook, 1997, p.8). Brooks rejected Jenkinson’s passive approach to appraisal and proposed weeding records for duplicates. He also tried to describe criteria that archivists might use to identify records of permanent value (Peace, 1984, p.4).
Schellenberg identified the criteria of primary and secondary values. Primary values were those values placed on records by their creators, while secondary values were those assigned to the records by subsequent, external users. He sub-divided these secondary values into evidential values and informational values reflecting the importance of the records for research. This approach assigns value according to the needs of the user, but the archivist determined the values of records, and used his criteria to select those to be kept, and those that could be safely destroyed (T. Cook, 1997, p.10).
Schellenberg worked in the United States National Archives, newly established during the 1930s. He dealt with a huge accumulation of relatively modern government records, which had been kept in a fairly uncontrolled environment (Craig, 1999, p.65-66). His methodology was developed as a practical response to this situation, setting out clear guidelines for appraisal. Cook argues Schellenberg’s approach reflects the values of contemporary American political culture of the ‘New Deal’, which emphasised efficiency and the benefits of a management technocracy of which the archivist was a member (T. Cook, 1997, p.10). Craig also sees his work on appraisal as underlining the role of the National Archives as a research institution, serving historians who used archives for their research (1999, pp.66-67).
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Writing from a record management perspective, Schellenberg criticised Jenkinson for the latter’s disapproval of appraisal. Their differences are most profound in terms of appraisal and custody. Faced with enormous quantities of federal records, Schellenberg embraced appraisal theories to decrease the number of records in his custody. Pioneering a theory based on the record’s lifecycle, his primary goal was one of efficiency. Although subjectivity in making appraisal decisions is rightly acknowledged, contemporary criticism of Schellenberg relates to the notion that a record management approach allows archivists to determine value which “privileges the powerful and the institutional in society” (Cook, 1999). Therefore, it is under-representative of groups of people who lack substantial amounts of power.
Schellenberg’s contribution to appraisal theory is clearly significant. He arguably produced the first framework for appraisal and many archivists today still use his terms of primary and secondary values and evidential and informational values (Cox, 2004, p.270). There have been many advocates of ‘use dictated’ appraisal. These include Maynard Brichford whose 1977 manual encouraged archivists to evaluate the demand for records, based on long-term needs for documentary sources and the potential demands of scholars (T. Cook, 1997, p.10). Brichford produced a list of categories of types of records grouped together by their relative importance for research, with the implication that records that have limited use for this purpose can be safely discarded. These kinds of guidelines would appear to be seductive for many contemporary archivists, according to Richard Cox, who suggests that what we want is a simple, straightforward model for making all appraisal decisions (2004, p.271). Nevertheless, however useful these guidelines might be, they illustrate the dangers of relying on use-defined appraisal. At its extreme it is too simplistic, ignoring the unique nature of archival material. Terry Cook has also argued that user-based appraisal theory is too subjective. After all, every record is useful to someone somewhere. He further asserts that it is impossible to predict future trends in historical research, and that there are too many records for archivists to be able to locate research values accurately. The increase in the use of electronic records poses further problems. Paper-based records can be held for some time after they have ceased to be used by their creators in order to develop historical perspective, but appraisal decisions about electronic records need to be made before they are created, in order to ensure long-term access and readability (T. Cook, 1997, p.8).
The third appraisal model is the view that the values of society should be the basis for appraisal. This view appears to have originated in the 1970s through the work of Gerald Ham. Ham thought that archives should represent all of society: its people, institutions and experiences. Archives should recognise individuals and groups who were poorly represented by state and corporate repositories. This view was shaped by his working experience with personal papers, and with the archives of small organisations and social groups. He echoed Schellenberg in emphasising the responsibility of archivists to determine the shape of the records kept for future use, but also thought that the records kept should be more inclusive and less biased towards the privileged (Craig, 1999, p.68-69).
Hans Booms and Helen Samuels shared this view, and both developed conceptual models for appraisal based upon it. Booms also thought that society rather than the records creator or the specialised user should generate the values that define archival significance and retention (T. Cook, 1997, p.11). Booms was an advocate of active appraisal, but was keen to avoid reliance on subjective judgement. He insisted that the archivist has a duty to select material, but that the principles of selection must be objective (Peace, 1984, p.10). His approach to appraisal was based on research into the functional context of the creation and contemporary use of records. As this focuses on the functions rather than the content of records, unlike the approaches of Jenkinson and Schellenberg, it has been described as a ‘top-down approach’ (T. Cook, 1999, p.7). Samuels’ model was based on her experience working in university and college repositories. She also advocated functional appraisal through documentation strategies, designed to respond to the abundance of institutions and information and ensure the documentation of particular issues, activities or geographical areas that were important to contemporary society. The underlying concern of the documentation strategy was not so much to find out what existed to document a particular topic, but what should exist. Archivists would be able to select material based on current understanding and contemporary values, and Samuels saw documentation strategies as ongoing analyses (1986, pp.120-122).
Samuels’ documentation strategy has been criticised because functions and activities can overlap, and therefore it is possible that duplicated information might be selected. Terry Cook argues that this strategy is more appropriate for non-governmental and non-corporate records (1997, p.13). However, he acknowledges the contribution of both Booms and Samuels to the theory of macro-appraisal, which he and his colleagues at the National Archives of Canada implemented in 1991 and which was also pioneered in the Netherlands as part of the PIVOT project (T. Cook, 1999, p.11). This theory is also based on the belief that societal values should be the basis of archival appraisal. However, it focuses research on the records creators rather than directly on society, using the assumption that those creators, and the citizens and organisations with whom they interact, indirectly represent the collective functioning of society (T. Cook, 1997, p.12). In this way, appraisal is focused on governance rather than merely of government, and archivists are directed towards the selection of records that provide evidence of the greatest impact of government on society, not those providing evidence of government functions per se as an end in themselves (T. Cook, 2004, pp.8-10). Cook states that macro-appraisal determines the value of records not by the dictates of the state, as in the first appraisal model, nor by the latest trends in historical research, as in the second appraisal model, but by trying to reflect the values of society through a functional analysis of the interaction of the citizen with the state (2004, p.16).
Of the three models for archival appraisal described above, that based on the functional analysis of records is clearly the most relevant for contemporary archivists. Working environments are characterised by excessive amounts of records and the frequent re-structuring of institutions creating them, pressure on time and storage space and the increasing use of electronic records. Function-based appraisal can help to alleviate some of these problems because it can be undertaken quickly and concentrates scarce resources on addressing current records (Cox, 2004, p.183). It is certainly the only model that has the ability to deal with electronic records. The provenance of electronic records must be preserved if they are to maintain qualities of evidential accountability. Since functional appraisal concentrates on the context in which records are created, archivists can make appraisal decisions before creation takes place, and administrators can ensure that record-keeping systems have the capability to maintain accessible, authentic, reliable records for long-term preservation (Piggott, 2001, p.4). Ironically, the involvement of administrators in determining which records should be retained to comply with organisational accountability can be seen to some extent as a return to the Jenkinsonian model of the records creator determining value (Reed, 1993, p.192). However, the difference is that it is now desirable for archivists and administrators to work more closely together in order to reach such decisions.
Functional analysis and macro-appraisal strategies are clearly well suited for the appraisal of records produced by organisations with well established functions and a regular structure for their business, such as national and local government authorities, and some businesses. Yet they arguably appear less useful for non-governmental and non-corporate organisations. Samuels and Terry Cook have both argued that it is possible to adapt macro-appraisal to other types of record as long as the importance of the citizen-state axis is maintained; linking universities and students, churches and parishioners, unions and members (Piggott, 2001, p.4). However, it would seem that the model is much more difficult to adapt to collections of personal papers. As Barbara Craig asserts, the emotional and psychological motivations of the individual for making records (especially evident in personal documents such as diaries, journals and creative work) are not easily accommodated within the concept of functional analysis (1999, p.73). One limitation of all three basic appraisal models is that they were all developed by government-employed archivists (Peace, 1984, p.15). There has been comparatively little writing on archival appraisal outside this arena to address the specific problems outlined above.
Postmodernist theorists including Terry Cook and Eric Ketelaar, criticise Jenkinson’s notions of appraisal, custody and the passive role of the archivist. No longer are archivists under the misconception that archives tell us history ‘as it happened’. Electronic records have helped to challenge existing definitions but rather than providing alternatives, postmodernist thinkers value plurality and questioning in order to further debate. Dodge (2006) states that “digital culture and its promise of a further loosening of the ties” may encourage more to eschew ties to positivist approaches (pp.348-349). The emergence of digital records cannot be regarded as Jenkinson’s ‘natural process’ – it requires active capture and preservation to prevent obsolescence.
Perhaps the main reason functional analysis is the most relevant model for archival appraisal today, even with the limitations discussed above, is that it is the most modern theory. It reflects prevailing views in the current archival world. It goes furthest to addressing contemporary concerns, especially regarding electronic records. Jenkinson and Schellenberg’s theories are not as useful today partly because they are not contemporary; they could not anticipate future developments in the same way that archivists today cannot anticipate future research trends for the use of records they have to appraise. Few contemporary archivists would support Jenkinson’s view over that of Brichford. No single appraisal theory will ever be wholly applicable to all records. Yet this does not negate the need for more research on appraisal. Michael Piggott has said that appraisal is the primary archival function upon which all other functions depend (2001, p.1). Richard Cox argues that it is the core intellectual responsibility of the archivist, and should become the focus for graduate education rather than archival description (2004, pp.276, 284). This overview illustrates that archival appraisal must continue to evolve in order to retain relevance as a theory and useful application in archival practice.
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