Monday, November 19, 2012

Where The Old Stuff Goes: The Importance of Appraisal

Institutional archives tend to gain the bulk of their records via a records management program and directly from the institution they are part of.  Thematic archives are typically not linked with an institution in the same way and must look beyond a single organization for records.  This results in theme oriented archives relying on collection policies to dictate the type of material they collect.
Properly functioning records management programs provide a constant supply of new archival records.  Theme basic archives typically have no idea when the next donation might appear on the horizon.  This can result in what some have termed a 'keeper' mentality or a vacuum approach (sucks up everything in sight) to archival selection. Frank Boles in Selecting & Appraising Archives & Manuscripts provides a thoughtful summary of this type of fear based approached to selection,
"The uncertainty inherent in collecting records is real, but in many collecting archives it has been linked to the 'keeper' mentality...this linkage has further lessened the urge to plan.  If an archivist cannot know what tomorrow will bring, this line of reasoning argues, then perhaps he or she should simply seize what is at hand and preserve at all cost." (p. 65)
 Having spent the last two years working in an archive that operated for 30+ years without a collection policy or trained archival staff, has highlighted how this urge to keep anything that might be tangentially relevant can create chaos in any archive.  It isn't physically or financially practical to keep everything.  There is no need to keep 45 identical copies of an event program or every brochure that has ever been mailed to an archive. Think of how many documents you make in the course of a single day -- how many do you throw out or delete as soon as you're done using them? These transitory records have little value beyond their immediate use and are not normally candidates for archival preservation.

The lack of a well conceived collection policy can contribute to resources being spent on material that isn't useful to researchers or community groups the archive aims to serve, collections being accepted that have no 'intrinsic archival or research value' and a whole range of administrative problems such as collections on deposit and a plethora of missing donor information.  Collecting everything in sight can even contribute the collection of items which can be detrimental to the physical collection as a whole -- eg. Collections that contain mold, insects, nitrate negatives without proper storage, etc.

Having a strategic plan, collection policy and mandate can benefit archival staff, researchers, and community groups.  Once collection priorities are established archival staff can focus outreach on potential donors with relevant collections, instead of waiting for scraps of maybe relevant material to be handed to them.  Many useful fonds and collections are not necessarily the largest in existence, but the ones which are well documented, have rich provenance and have been arranged and described with care.  An archive which has many poorly described, non related collections is far less accessible to researchers than an archive which focuses on providing clear access to a well defined type of collection.

Most of the general public sees archives as general storage places for 'old stuff.'  Archives need to actively work toward educating the public and researchers about the purpose of collection policies, acquisition strategies, and archival mandates.  Having strong collection policies makes it easier for archival staff to make appropriate appraisal choices, which in tern makes it easier for archival staff to explain to the public why they don't act as a repository for every old piece of paper. 

Photo credit: wj_souza