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Whither Appraisal?: David Bearman’s “Archival Strategies” 2011/08/22

Posted by nydawg in Archives, Best Practices, Curating, Digital Archives, Digital Preservation, Education, Electronic Records, Information Technology (IT), Media, Records Management.
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Back in Fall 1995, American Archivist published one of the most controversial and debate-inspiring essays written by archival bad-boy David Bearman of Archives & Museum Informatics from Pittsburgh (now living in Canada).  The essay, “Archival Strategies” pointed to several problems (challenges/obstacles) in archival methods and strategies which, at the time, threatened to make the profession obsolete.   The piece was a follow-up to his “Archival Methods” from 1989 and showed “time and again that archivists have themselves documented order of magnitude and greater discrepancies between our approaches and our aims, they call for a redefinition of the problems, the objectives, the methods or the technologies appropriate to the archival endeavor.”  As he points out in Archival Strategies, “In Archival Methods, I argued that “most potential users of archives don’t,” and that “those who do use archives are not the users we prefer.””

This disconnect between archives and their future users led Bearman to write “I urged that we seek justification in use, and that we become indispensable to corporate functioning as the source of information pertaining to what the organization does, and as the locus of accountability.”  With his well-stated pithy aphorisms like “most potential users of archives don’t,” and that “those who do use archives are not the users we prefer,” he was able to point to the serious problem facing us today: past practices have led us to preserve the wrong stuff for our unprefered users!  Of course Information Technology has led us down this road since computer storage is marketed as so cheap (and always getting cheaper),  and it seems much easier to store everything than to let an archivist do his job starting with selection and appraisal, retention and preservation, arrangement and description, and access and use.

Ultimately, his essay is a clarion call for archivists to establish a clear goal for the profession, namely to accept their role in risk management and providing accountability for the greater societal goal.  The role of an archivist, in my opinion, is to serve as an institution’s conscience!  Perhaps that is the reason why library science and archival studies are considered science.   He suggests that strategic thinking is required “Because strategic thinking focuses on end results, it demands “outcome” oriented, rather than “output” oriented, success measures. For example, instead of measuring the number of cubic feet of accessions (an output of the accessioning process), we might measure the percentage of requests for records satisfied (which comes closer to reflecting the purpose of accessioning).”

This seminal essay is a fascinating read and groundbreaking analysis of the sorry state of appraisal.  “What we have actually been doing is scheduling records to assure that nothing valuable is thrown away, but this is not at all equivalent to assuring that everything valuable is kept.  Instead, these methods reduce the overall quantity of documentation; presumably we have felt that if the chaff was separated from the wheat it would be easier to identify what was truly important.  The effect, however, is to direct most records management and archival energy into
controlling the destruction of the 99 percent of records which are of only temporary value, rather than into identifying the 1 percent we want, and making efforts to secure them.”

Using incendiary language, Bearman goes on to state the obvious:  “Appraisal, which is the method we have
employed to select or identify records, is bankrupt.  Not only is it hopeless to try to sort out the cascade of “values” that can be found in records and to develop a formula by which these are applied to records, 16 it wastes resources and rarely even encounters the evidence of those business functions which we most want to document.”

2D lifecycle or 3D continuum

This is a revolutionary essay, and I strongly encourage every archivist to read it and think about it deeply.  The ideas have mostly languished and been ignored in this country as we continue to use the life cycle model, but Bearman’s ideas are written in the international standards for records management (ISO 15489) and  widely embraced in Australia (and China) where, over the last two decades, they have conceptualized and implemented the “Australian records continuum” model to great effect and, in doing so, they are looking at born-digital assets and electronic records from perspectives of all users, functions, and needs.  In my opinion, it seems like the continuum model is a 3D version of the lifecycle, which reminds me of this image from A Wrinkle in Time in which Mrs. Who and Mrs. Whatsit explain time travel to Meg and Charles Wallace by showing how an ant can quickly move across a string if the two ends are brought closer together.   In other words, if archivists look at the desired end result, they can appraise and process accordingly.


After reading the Bearman essay for the first time and seeing how it has caused such dramatic changes in archival conceptualizations, methods, strategies and processes elsewhere, but is still not taught in any depth in US library or archival studies schools, I spoke with other nydawg members, and we decided to use it as the text as for our next discussion group on Tuesday August 23.   I hope to revisit this topic later.

One last point.  Because of the deluge of materials accessioned by archives, “uncataloged backlog among manuscripts collections was a mean of nearly one-third repository holdings”, leading the authors to claim “Cataloging is  function that is not working.”  With budgets cut and small staffs unable to make progress, Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner wrote another revolutionary piece titled “More Product, Less Process: Pragmatically Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal with Late 20th-Century Collections” [MPLP] which was a plea for minimal processing.

Unlike Bearman’s “Archival Strategies”, MPLP leads archivists to believe that we must remain passive filers or describers or catalogers or undertakers.  But without a better understanding of appraisal and how to do it, we are doomed with analog, paper, born-digital or electronic records!  The clearest example of this is the National Archives and Records Administration’s Electronic Records Archive (ERA) which, according to Archivist of the United States David Ferriero “At the moment, most of the electronic records in ERA are Presidential records from the George W. Bush White House.  This important collection includes more than 200 million e-mail messages and more than 3 million digital photographs, as well as more than 30 million additional electronic records in other formats. ”

A few weeks ago, I actually crunched the numbers and figured out that 200 million emails over the course of eight years works out to nearly one email a second!  (365 days a year x 8 years = 2920 days plus 2 (leap year days)  2922 x 24 hours a day = 70,128 hours x 60 mins in an hour = 4,207,680 x 60 seconds per minute = 252,460,800. )
After doing the math, my first thought was, “if we’re trying to process and preserve every email sent every second by the George W. Bush Administration, we must be doing something wrong.”  And now, I think I understand the problem: we’re not doing effective appraisal.  Although we still have to wait for public access to the emails, I am fairly confident that researchers will find that nearly 90 percent of the collection are duplicates, or that they are keeping copies of the sent email, the different received emails, plus backups of all of them.  With better appraisal, this task should not be so difficult, and would leave more time for catalogers to do more detailed descriptions (which will be more important later, especially with different formats of “moving images” which are not compatible  with newer versions of hardware (e.g. iPads don’t play Flash Video).




1. Paradigm Shift from Economics of Scarcity to Abundance & Scarcity of Common Sense « nydawg New York Digital Archivists Working Group - 2011/08/24

[…] is accessioning 200 million emails from the George W. Bush Administration which, as I’ve blogged previously, works out to nearly one email every second of the […]

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