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The Appraisal of Modern Public Records: Introduction

by T. R. Schellenberg

Bulletins of the National Archives
Number 8 (October 1956)


Modern public records are very voluminous. Their growth in volume corresponds closely to the increase in human population since the middle of the 18th century. This population increase has made necessary an expansion of governmental activity, and this expansion has had as one of its concomitants a tremendous increase in record production. As modern technological methods have come to be applied to the production of records, their growth, in the last several decades, has been in a geometric, rather than an arithmetic ratio.

A reduction in the quantity of such public records is essential to both the government and the scholar. A government cannot afford to keep all the records that are produced as a result of its multifarious activities. It cannot provide space to house them nor staff to care for them. The costs of maintaining them are beyond the means of the most opulent nation. Nor are scholars served by maintaining all of them. Scholars cannot find their way through the huge quantities of modern public records. The records must be reduced in quantity to make them useful for scholarly research. "Even the most convinced advocates of conservation in the historical interest," according to a pamphlet issued by the British Public Record Office, "have begun to fear that the historian of the future dealing with our period may be submerged in the flood of written evidences." (Footnote 1). The scholarly interest in records, for that matter, is often in inverse ratio to their quantity: the more records on a subject, the less is the interest.

In the reduction of modern public records great care must be exercised to retain those that have value. In the long run the effectiveness of a record reduction program must be judged according to the correctness of its determinations. In such a program there is no substitute for careful analytical work. Techniques cannot be devised that will reduce the work of deciding upon values to a mechanical operation. Nor is there a cheap and easy way to dispose of records unless it is one of destroying everything that has been created, of literally wiping everything off the board. Such a drastic course would appeal only to the nihilist, who sees no good in social institutions or in the records pertaining to them. The difficulties in appraising recent records are so great that it is small wonder some archivists were at one time inclined to shut their eyes to them and take no action at all. Like Louis XV before the French Revolution, they seemed to feel that "the old regime will last our time, and after us the deluge."


The values that inhere in modern public records are of two kinds: primary values for the originating agency itself and secondary values for other agencies and private users. Public records are created to accomplish the purposes for which an agency has been created -- administrative, fiscal, legal, and operating. These uses are of course of first importance. But public records are preserved in an archival institution because they have values that will exist long after they cease to be of current use, and because their values will be for others than the current users. It is this lasting, secondary usefulness that will be considered in this bulletin.


The secondary values of public records can be ascertained most easily if they are considered in relation to two kinds of matters: (1) the evidence they contain of the organization and functioning of the Government body that produced them, and (2) the information they contain on persons, corporate bodies, things, problems, conditions, and the like, with which the Government body dealt. The distinction between the values that relate to these two kinds of matters may be clarified by analyzing the definition of records in the Records Disposal Act of the United States Government of July 7, 1943 (44 U. S. Code 366-80). In this act the word "records" is defined to include, first, all materials containing evidence of the "organization, functions, policies, decisions, procedures, operations, or other activities of the Government." Here the emphasis is on the essential records of an agency's origin, development, and accomplishment -- the "evidential" records, which contain the evidence of the agency's existence and achievement. The word "records" is further defined in the act to include materials that should be preserved "because of the informational value of data contained therein." Here the emphasis is on records that contain essential information on matters with which an agency dealt, in contrast to records on the dealings themselves -- the "research" records, which contain information useful for studies in a variety of subject fields.

For purposes of discussion, the values that attach to records because of the evidence they contain of organization and function will be called "evidential values." By this term I do not refer to the value that inheres in public records because of any special quality or merit they have as documentary evidence. I do not refer, in the sense of the English archivist Sir Hilary Jenkinson, to the sanctity of the evidence in archives that is derived from "unbroken custody," (Footnote 2) or from the way they came into the hands of the archivist. I refer rather, and quite arbitrarily, to the value that depends on the character and importance of the matter evidenced, i.e. the origin and the substantive programs of the agency that produced the records. The quality of the evidence per se is thus not the issue here, but the character of the matter evidenced.

For purposes of discussion, also, the values that attach to records because of the information they contain will be referred to as "informational values." The information may relate, in a general way, either to persons, or things, or phenomena. The term "persons" may include either individuals or corporate bodies. The term "things" may include places, buildings, physical objects, and other material things. The term "phenomena" relates to what happens to either persons or things -- to conditions, problems, activities, programs, events, episodes, and the like.

It should be emphasized that the distinction between evidential and informational values is made solely for purposes of discussion. The two types of values are not mutually exclusive. A record may be useful for various reasons. The value that attaches to it because of its evidence of government organization and functioning may occasionally be the same as the value that is derived from its information on persons, things, and phenomena. A government's actions in the fields of diplomacy and war, for example, are the main objects of inquiry in regard to those fields. Here the evidential value coincides to a marked degree with the informational value, for the historian is as much interested in a government's actions in regard to diplomatic and military happenings as he is in the happenings themselves.

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