Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Appraisal and disposal > Appraising digital records: a worthwhile exercise?

Appraising digital records: a worthwhile exercise?

Is it necessary to appraise digital records at all?

Continual improvements to search and retrieval technologies and the apparently diminishing costs of storing vast quantities of material has led many to question the value of appraisal.

The arguments against appraising digital records:

Trends in the digital world seem to reject the practice of actively organising digital collections by choosing what to keep and what to discard. Declining storage costs and improved discovery seem to have rendered appraisal and disposal needless. Some record creators are increasingly reliant on search and display technologies to present data: little is deleted and the creation of logical directory structures as a means of arranging material is abandoned. This approach to managing digital archives undermines the archivist's ability to appraise on the basis of content and context; effectively appraisal is impossible because the lack of structure leaves item-level appraisal as the sole option and the volume of the personal archive prohibits this. Appraisal could be postponed until the cataloguing process, when the archivist generates descriptive metadata (see Chapter 06 Arranging and cataloguing digital and hybrid archives) and identifies material requiring access restrictions for personal and legal reasons (see Chapter 09 Legal issues). It is also possible that the value of descriptive cataloguing for digital archives may be called into question. The needs of researchers may be satisfied by various search and discovery tools used in other digital scenarios; these may be preferred to, or used alongside, detailed and structured archival finding aids. Perhaps the only item-level descriptive metadata required by researchers (besides a collection level description setting out context, provenance and access restrictions, etc.) will be unique identifiers for citing specific digital manuscripts. It is possible that only the most important collections will be appraised and catalogued in future, similar to the way in which only very high value manuscripts are catalogued to piece level.

The arguments in favour of appraising digital records:

Arguments in favour of appraisal refute the argument that storage costs are declining. Storage and processing costs per byte may decline and continue to decline, but if the growth of content (per byte or per object) keeps pace with this declining cost, then the real cost of keeping everything may actually be the same as it is now, or higher. As storage and processing technologies improve, the technologies used to create data evolve to absorb this increased capacity. Further, the cost of backup routines and other system administration tasks have not decreased sufficiently that we can call storage 'cheap'. In addition to this, we must consider the costs of creating preservation metadata and undertaking preservation actions (e.g. format migration, which creates additional digital files and metadata for curation) for items of no historical value. Is the creation, storage and processing of preservation metadata sufficiently economic to offset the cost of not appraising? If automated tools for metadata creation and preservation actions are adequate, then perhaps it might be sensible to create technical metadata for all objects and combine appraisal with the cataloguing of an archive later on in its lifecycle. The timing and extent of appraisal in relation to a particular archive will probably be dependent on the arrangement of the material at the time of submission to the archiving repository.