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The Appraisal of Modern Public Records: Conclusions

by T. R. Schellenberg

Bulletins of the National Archives
Number 8 (October 1956)

CONCLUSIONS

Several general observations may now be made regarding the appraisal of modern public records, to wit:

First, the considerations that should be borne in mind in ascertaining values in records cannot be reduced to exact standards. Our standards can be little more than general principles. They can never be made precise, though, of course, the series or types of records produced by a particular public agency that meet certain general standards may be precisely identified. The standards should never be regarded as absolute or final. At best they will serve merely as guidelines to steer the archivist through the treacherous shoals of appraisal.

Secondly, since appraisal standards cannot be made exact or precise, it follows that they need not be applied with absolute consistency. Archivists may use different criteria in evaluating records of different periods, for what is valuable for a past age may be valueless for the present. The American historian Justin H. Smith (1857-1930) observed that "a great deal is said by some people about 'rubbish,' but one investigator's 'rubbish' may be precious to another, and what appears valueless to-day may be found highly important tomorrow." (Footnote 14). Archivists of different archival institutions may also use different criteria in evaluating similar types of records, for what is valuable to one archival institution may be valueless to another. Complete consistency in judging informational values is as undesirable as it is impossible of accomplishment. Diverse judgments may result in records on particular matters being preserved at particular places, although the records arc not deserving of general preservation. Diverse judgments may also spread the burden of preserving the documentation of a country among its various archival institutions, making one preserve what another may discard. Certain Federal records may thus be more appropriately preserved in regional depositories than at the National Archives because the information they contain is in such detail that it can be preserved only in concentrated form at the national level or because the information they contain is predominantly of a local or regional rather than a national interest.

Thirdly, since appraisal standards cannot be made absolute or final, they should be applied with moderation and common sense. An archivist should keep neither too much nor too little. He should follow the Aristotelian precept of "moderation in everything, excess in nothing."

This precept, for that matter, is similar to two of Meissner's standards, which are "extremes are to be avoided," and that "too great an abstraction is an evil."

Fourthly, appraisals of records should not be based on intuition or arbitrary suppositions of value they should be based instead on thorough analyses of the documentation hearing on the matter to which the records pertain. Analysis is the essence of archival appraisal. While appraising the evidential values of records the archivist must take into account the entire documentation of the agency that produced them. He should not make his evaluations on a piecemeal basis or on the basis of individual organizational units within an agency. He should relate the particular group of records under consideration to other groups to understand its significance as evidence of organization and function. His appraisals, it is apparent, are dependable to the degree to which he has analyzed the origins and inter-relations of records. Similarly, while appraising the informational values of records, the archivist must take into account the entire documentation of society on the matter to which the information relates. He must determine if the particular group of records under consideration contains unique information and if it has a form that makes it valuable as a source of information, and only after he has done this should he enter into the realm of the imponderable -- into questions of research importance. His appraisals of records, again, are dependable to the degree to which he has analyzed all other available documentary sources on the matter to which the records pertain.

Fifthly, if his analysis does not yield the information that is needed in the appraisal of records, the archivist should seek the help of experts. Obviously an archivist cannot be expected to know the research needs of all scholarly disciplines. Occasionally he will be called on to evaluate records that involve a knowledge beyond his sphere. In evaluating records needed for disciplines in which he is not trained he should, if necessary, seek the help of specialists in those disciplines. If the archival institution is a very large one, a number of subject-matter specialists are likely to be found on its staff whose special competencies can be brought to bear on the evaluation of special groups of modern public records. If the institution is small, the number of staff subject-matter specialists will be limited, and the need for outside help will be greater. In the National Archives a panel of experts was used to help evaluate the records of the General Accounting Office, an agency of the legislative branch of the Government that audits the fiscal operations of agencies of the executive branch. (Footnote 15). The records offered by this office spanned the years 1776-1900 and comprised over 65,000 cubic feet. They obviously had very little value for the evidence they contained of organization and function; but since they covered the whole of the national history of the United States, they were likely to contain incidental or accidental information on important historical, economic, and social phenomena. Appraisal of these records was an onerous task that could not very well be accomplished by any one person, no matter how comprehensive his knowledge of research resources and research needs might be. After the records were reviewed by various subject-matter specialists on the stall of the National Archives, therefore, help was obtained from specialists in the fields of military history, western history, and public administration.

Sixthly, before seeking the help of experts the archivist should do the basic analytical work that is preliminary to the appraisal of records. He should first accumulate the data about the records in question that are essential in determining the uniqueness and form of the information contained in them. He should describe the various series to be appraised, indicating their form and volume, the types of information available in them, their relation to other groups or series that contain similar information, their relation to published sources, and the like, in order that the scholars consulted may more quickly get at the business of determining which particular series or groups contain information valuable for investigations of various matters and which contain this information in the most usable and condensed form.

Seventhly, while exploring the interest of scholars in particular groups of records, the archivist should assume the role of moderator. An archivist dealing with modern records realizes that not all of them can be preserved, that some of them have to be destroyed, and that, in fact, a discriminating destruction of a portion of them is a service to scholarship. He is therefore inclined to agree with the observation that "too great an abstraction" in the appraisal of records "is an evil," for he knows that any scholar with a little intellectual ingenuity can find a plausible justification for keeping almost every record that was ever produced. In evaluating certain of the large series of records that are useful for social and economic studies, therefore, he must take into account the practical difficulties in the way of their preservation and bring these to the attention of the scholars who are interested in preserving them. He must show that a careful selection of the documentation produced by a modern government is necessary if he is not to glut his stacks with insignificant materials that will literally submerge those that are valuable. He must call attention to the fact that a government has only a limited amount of funds for the preservation of its documentary resources and that these funds must be applied judiciously for the preservation of the most important of these resources.


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