Workbook on Digital Private Papers > Appraisal and disposal > Introduction


Appraisal is defined in the Collins English Dictionary as 'an assessment of the worth or quality of a person or thing.' Archival theory extends this definition to include the policies and procedures used by an archivist to identify, evaluate and authenticate records, in all formats, which have transient or enduring value to record creators, institutions, researchers and society. Appraisal in a paper-based archive traditionally takes place once a record is no longer current, but determination of how long a record should be retained can take place before creation for some kinds of records. Examples of records often selected for permanent preservation prior to creation include the minutes of an organisation's central executive or annual reports. Records chosen for indefinite preservation are usually selected on the basis of long-term historical significance. Records may also be selected for medium to long-term preservation for business purposes or to fulfil legal requirements; this chapter of the Workbook focuses on the approaches and techniques that can be applied in selecting records of long-term historical value. In a digital environment, traditional methods of appraisal need to be revised to take into account the need to archive objects before they become obsolete. It should be remembered that archival theories apply regardless of media.

Appraisal can never be free of bias and subjectivity, and will always reflect the culture and values of the day and the proclivities of the archivist(s) who made the decisions. Older manuscript material is scarce; this scarcity increases the value of surviving material and makes curators more inclined to keep a greater proportion of this material. By the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the age of 'Modern Archives', the documentary landscape had changed dramatically with the vast proliferation of both printed and archival material. Jenkinson, in his A Manual of Archive Administration (2nd ed. 1937), writes of 'the increasing tendency to manufacture Archives on a hopelessly gigantic scale' (p. 148). He attributes this to the comparatively cheap price of paper, the mechanical nature of writing and the tendency to 'avoid the painful process of thought' (p. 137) because using technology to make multiple copies of archives requires less intellectual effort than making a decision about the necessity of the copy. The scale of 'Modern Archives' required a regime of selection and destruction, which is not applicable to early manuscript materials. The American archival theorist, Schellenberg, was one of the first to address the need for wide ranging appraisal techniques and the destruction of superfluous records. Schellenberg worked at the National Archives and Records Administration for many years and his theories are based on public records, which were increasing at such a rate that a scientific method for selecting the small percentage with enduring value and destroying the remainder was required. Schellenberg's division of appraisal attributes into primary (value to the creator - administrative, legal and fiscal) and secondary (historical value - evidential and informational) is as applicable to personal archives as it is to governmental records.

In the digital age the problems apparent in 'Modern Archives' are exacerbated. Digital abundance exceeds that of paper and tends to devalue individual items further. Creators of archives often keep more because creation, storage and discovery technologies are improving while appraising and disposing of material is still a largely manual and tedious activity. If these abundant digital assets are to be managed effectively the creator, the archivist and the researcher must do more in the way of appraisal.

Appraisal is the primary archival function on which all other functions depend and as such requires careful thought. Besides archival considerations, secondary factors such as the cost of storage, cataloguing and long-term preservation, will come into play.