Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Appraising Archival Accountability

Although appraisal became the topic of much theoretical and conceptual debate in the 1980s and 1990s, revitalizing the professional and scholarly literature in this area, archival appraisal still has not been the focus of much research. One of my doctoral students, Jennifer A. Marshall, recently successfully defended a dissertation on appraisal, “Accounting for Disposition: A Comparative Case Study of Appraisal at the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States, Library and Archives Canada, and the National Archives of Australia.” Marshall provides some of the best descriptions of appraisal activity written to this point, with a focus on the issue of whether how archivists document their appraisal function enable them to be accountable to society and the users of archives. As more and more individuals outside the archives community consider the nature of what archives represent and archivists do, this small but important profession needs to consider such matters and write about such matters in a more forthright and public fashion.

Here is the abstract of her dissertation; the dissertation will be available online in the near future:

Society delegates responsibility for the selection and preservation of records of continuing value to archivists. In accepting this charge, the archival profession enters into a relationship with society in which ensuring public trust through accounting to society for the responsible management of records becomes essential. For archivists to maintain this public trust and to be accountable for appraisal, they must create, maintain, and provide access to documentation of how this process is carried out and of why particular disposition decisions are reached. Documentation that reflects that archivists have weighed relevant legislation, institutional policies, professional best practice, and societal values during the appraisal decision-making process enables archivists to demonstrate that they have arrived at responsible decisions in their selection of records for disposal or for continued retention in archives. Appraisal documentation serves as a safeguard which ensures that disposition of records occurs according to standard procedures and protects against the arbitrary and capricious destruction of records.

This dissertation explores the relationship between appraisal documentation and archival accountability through a comparative case study of the units tasked with making disposition decisions at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in the United States, Library and Archives Canada (LAC), and the National Archives of Australia (NAA). The research developed detailed descriptions of how appraisal is documented at each of the host institutions. Using a content analysis of documentation and interviews with archivists at NARA, LAC, and NAA regarding the appraisal documentation produced by their respective institutions, the study also assessed archivists’ views regarding what constitutes documentation of appraisal that is adequate to permit archivists to be held accountable for appraisal in government archives.
This comparative analysis produced preliminary guidelines for accountable documentation of appraisal that serve as a starting point for future research related to archival accountability for this core professional function.

[Note: Thanks to DongHee Sinn for the photograph taken during Jennifer's defense. The members of the committee were Ellen Detlefsen, Terry Cook, Toni Carbo, and myself.]