Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Appraisal and disposal > Recommended approaches to appraising personal archives

Recommended approaches to appraising personal archives

Functional appraisal theory

Paradigm's experiences suggest that the digital curator would be on safer ground assessing the function not format of a document as part of the appraisal process. Two archival theories which approach appraisal in this way are macro appraisal and functional appraisal.

Macro appraisal

Macro appraisal is a 'top-level', systematic approach to selecting which records have long-term historical significance. It is often used by national archives to appraise the great swathes of governmental records from which a mere three percent will be selected for permanent preservation. The quote given below gives a useful definition of what is meant by macro appraisal.

"Essentially, macro-appraisal shifts the primary focus of appraisal from the record - including any research characteristics or values it may contain - to the functional context in which the record is created. The main appraisal questions for the archivist are no longer what has been recorded, where it is, and what research value it has. Instead, the archivist uses knowledge gained by a functional analysis of an institution, including an analysis of the interaction of function and structure, of organizational culture, of records keeping systems, and of citizen-client involvement with the institution or function."
Source of quote: Appraisal Methodology. Library and Archives Canada, Information Management Services, Summer 2000.

In the context of political papers macro appraisal would start with the broad area of UK politics, identifying the most important organisations (e.g. House of Commons, House of Lords, political parties, and think tanks) followed by the key functions (e.g. policy making, law-making, constituency work, and treasury), the record creators in each function (e.g. politicians, politicians' secretaries, think tank employees, and members of committees), and the key political events (e.g. elections, Prime Minister's Question Time, debates, and votes). Individual politicians would have a place in this structural map probably at the same level as a party political organisation. The very act of mapping politics in this fashion instructs the archivist in the political process and will alert them to key political documents such as Hansard (verbatim record of speeches made in Parliament), case work files, websites for elections, etc. Armed with this knowledge, the archivist will have a good idea of which are the most valuable records and be able to target their collecting accordingly.

Functional appraisal

Functional appraisal is a subset of macro appraisal, which can be a useful approach for digital records. Again, instead of looking at the document itself the digital archivist looks at the functions carried out by the record creator. This allows the archivist to select records for preservation based on the functions that generated the records not the content of the record. Functions are more stable over time than naming and filing practices and less susceptible to technological changes.

Macro and functional appraisal were developed with reference to modern governmental agencies and have been applied to organisations not individuals. Yet arguably such approaches lead to a greater knowledge of the subject area and a propensity to seek certain records rather than purely accepting what is offered, thus maximising the quality of material when resources are of a premium.

Both macro analysis and functional analysis played a role in the selection of participants for the Paradigm project and in the initial records survey used by the Paradigm team. Many of the questions asked in the records survey were about analysing functions and identifying the record-types used in carrying out these functions. Perhaps the most sensible course for a digital archivist dealing with hybrid or digital personal archives would be to use macro appraisal or a 'top down' approach during initial selection and processing (incidentally this would be the stage to eliminate duplicates too), but to use a 'bottom-up' strategy when carrying out more detailed appraisal during the preparation for cataloguing.

Bottom-up appraisal

A more granular assessment of an archive's contents will typically be undertaken when surveying a collection immediately prior to cataloguing. It is rarely cost effective to weed out single documents from a folder whether in a digital or paper environment. Not only is this a waste of time it also disrupts the context of a record. By taking a sample of folders, it should be possible to assess the reliability of folder and document names used by a particular creator. Where records series have been satisfactorily assigned meaningful titles it will mean that appraisal can, for the most part, operate without having to open each folder. A document-by-document approach to appraisal should be taken only as a last resort or when the digital archivist is faced with an example of terrible record keeping.

Technical appraisal

A digital repository will need to develop ingest workflows for common file types which implement the preservation strategy (see Chapter 08 Digital preservation strategies) adopted for those file types. The appraisal process will therefore include a survey of the types of digital records that have been accessioned. Depending on the strategy adopted, it may be necessary to migrate less supported file formats to those that are more likely to endure over time. There are various tools and registries which can assist in determining file types and which provide information upon whether a specific file format is supported or likely to become obsolete. In some cases data extraction work will be required before a complete appraisal of content, context and structure will be possible.