For Your Consideration: Adjusting the level of Archival (and RM) appraisal

A signal boost to this important post on NDIIPP’s The Signal blog, in which Meg Phillips discusses the impact of distant reading/text mining/computational analysis on the nature of archival appraisal (and, incidentally, the records management scheduling that supports same). The key passage, in my opinion, is the following:

The interesting thing about these questions is that the answersmay rely on the presence of records that would clearly be temporary if judged on their individual merits. Consider email messages like “Really sick today – not coming in” or a message from the executive of a  regulated company saying “Want to meet for lunch?” to a government policymaker. In the aggregate, the patterns of these messages  may paint a picture of disease spread or the inner workings of access and influence in government.  Those are exactly the kinds of messages traditional archival practice would try to cull. In these cases, appraising an entire corpus of records as permanent would support distant reading much better.  The informational value of the whole corpus cannot be captured by selecting just the records with individual value.

If we adjusted practice to support more distant reading, archivists would still do appraisal, deciding what is worth permanent preservation.  We would just be doing it at a different level of granularity – appraising the research value of an entire email system, SharePoint site or social media account, for example.

Yee-ikes. In a way, this isn’t new– the Capstone plan for dealing with email of the top administration of federal agencies is kind of based on the same principle, for example– but this is talking about the issue at an entirely different scale. Providing permanent access to the entirety of an organization’s information ecosystem seems like it would be a herculean task logistically, not to mention the privacy/confidentiality concerns that would come into play. Plus, I wonder if maintaining a system in its entirety would have a deleterious effect on the ability of researchers who DO still want to do close reading of individual documents to find what they’re looking for. Quicker searching and location of documents by the records creator is, after all, on of our profession’s major selling points for why people should practice records management. (To be fair, Meg does acknowledge these difficulties in her post.)

On the other hand, the overall point is a good one, and sort of gets to the heart of one of the major archival appraisal arguments: “Who are WE to determine what it is that future researchers will find useful?” Even in our own analog materials here at UWM, we have a number of records in our collections that I as a records manager would recommend be destroyed if they were being produced today–except that those records get a LOT of use from researchers looking for historical context. So maybe this shift is just proof of cycles in Archival and RM practice.  In any case, a lot to chew on– Please weigh in on the comments there or here.

Oh, also, an aside from Meg’s post: “Incidentally, on a practical level this level of appraisal might also lead to disposition instructions that are easier for creating offices to carry out.” Possibly THAT is the key point, rather than the above.


One thought on “For Your Consideration: Adjusting the level of Archival (and RM) appraisal

  1. nixonara

    There are no “creating offices,” of course. Only people who create and send email messages. And create other electronic records. And people who are tasked with preserving records in a record keeping climate that not only has shifted dramatically but is different, very different, in every federal agency and department. Human beings, all. But that’s not how we’ve been acculturated to talk about issues in Fedland or as information professionals. Yet that record keeping traditionally has depended on human choices is the best reason for re-thinking records management, records appraisal, and many related issues.


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