Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Appraisal and disposal > Issues to consider when making appraisal decisions

Issues to consider when making appraisal decisions

Personal record keeping differs from record keeping in an organisation or a government department in that the individual's day to day life does not revolve around a range of duties within a closely defined remit. Nor is the creator of a personal archive governed by records management strategies imposed across the board. This means that the individual's records are both more vulnerable to technological breakdown and much more idiosyncratic. Despite these differences, the characteristics to appraise in personal archives are similar to those used in an organisational context, though the results of the appraisal may be different.

Key characteristics to appraise

The first is the content of an archive. Does it contain records of long-term historical importance? Are the records what they purport to be? Can the records be manipulated and linked to others within the same digital or paper system?

Secondly, what is the context of the archive? Why were the records created? Do they have evidential value?

Thirdly, what is the structure of the archive? Does the structure shed light on the business, professional or organisational prerogatives of the creator?

Finally, there needs to be a technical appraisal. Can the collecting institution cope with the format of the digital records? Can they be extracted intact from their current hardware and software environment? Are the records supported by descriptive metadata? Are they valid instances of their format?

The relationship between cost and appraisal

Appraisal itself can be a costly exercise. Beyond initial appraisal, the cost and time involved in fully cataloguing a collection may also impinge on what is kept. The majority of detailed appraisal decisions are made at the full cataloguing stage, but appraisal and cataloguing at this level of the collection is expensive; it may be more pragmatic to retain everything and let the future researcher decide what is interesting. Free text searching within folders and across directory structures is possible, and techniques for searching other non-textual formats, such as audio and image may be developed. With such searching techniques it may not be worthwhile to catalogue below the collection and series levels.

Costs of preserving different types of digital object

Another key appraisal consideration is the cost of digital preservation. There is a need to weigh up the historical value of the record against the cost of indefinite preservation. Some digital objects may be more expensive to acquire, preserve and make accessible than others.

Objects that might be more expensive to retain include:

  • Complex or compound objects, such as websites or email archives.
  • Objects in undocumented formats.
  • Objects in obscure formats.
  • Objects in formats unsupported by a community or vendor at the time of acquisition.
  • Objects in formats for which no migration/emulation tools exist.
  • Objects in formats unknown/unsupported by preservation registries and tools.
  • Objects for which the repository has no preservation strategy.
  • Objects which are encrypted, password protected or subject to digital rights mechanisms.
  • Objects on old or obsolete media.
  • Objects without metadata.
  • Objects which require software licences for access or manipulation.

Objects that might be less expensive to retain might be:

  • Objects which are simple, such as a plain text file.
  • Objects which are self-documenting.
  • Objects in well-documented formats.
  • Objects in formats which are supported by a community or vendor at time of acquisition.
  • Objects for which good quality migration/emulation tools are available.
  • Objects in formats which are known and supported by preservation registries and tools.
  • Objects for which the repository has a preservation strategy.
  • Objects which are not encrypted, protected by passwords or digital rights mechanisms.
  • Objects arriving on contemporary media.
  • Objects with good quality metadata.
  • Objects which can be accessed and manipulated without the need for purchasing software licences.

Hybrid collections: managing both paper and digital archives

Many individuals are managing hybrid personal archives containing a mixture of digital and analogue materials. Even if a person creates archival materials digitally, often these are printed for use and annotated by hand. The offices of politicians participating in Paradigm created most records digitally, but printed some digital items to paper for use or filing. Archival materials accumulated by creators sometimes existed purely in paper format, for example, letters from constituents, invitations and press cuttings; equally certain materials were received only in digital format. Some offices had begun to digitise paper records and provide transcripts for the records using Optical Character Recognition software. Hybrid record keeping systems such as these risk unnecessary duplication which will need to be considered by the archivist if not the creator: a practical measure is to audit both the digital records and paper records together, establish where the same documents exist in both medium and decide which should be retained as the archival copy. Where both paper and digital copies exist, in the absence of manuscript annotations it would seem sensible to treat the digital as ‘master' copy because the digital medium has functionality absent in the paper copy. Ultimately the decision must rest on the repository's ability to process and preserve the digital archive.

Factors which will need to be considered when appraising hybrid digital and paper records include how well the material is arranged, how much paper material there is and, more importantly, how easy it is to see how the paper material relates to the digital records in the same deposit. Understanding how the creator works can be very helpful in making these assessments.