23 August 2013

Making time to think about appraisal

During the Society of American Archivist annual meeting Helen Kim tweeted during the session “Road Maps to Success: Strategic Planning in Archives,” “Do you have a mission and vision statement? Everyone laughs.”[1]  I presume that few had policies, or the policies were so old they were of limited value.  Chatting with several colleagues – including experienced, superb archivists – they told me they didn’t have those policies.  Not that I am surprised.  As one friend noted, he started off as a lone arranger and knew what needed to be done.  Over time, as his shop grew, creating policy documents was not tops on the list.  (Nor am I holding myself up as an exemplar.  I suspect this shoe would have fit me at different times in the past.)

At the end of the conference, Scott Cline, Rand Jimerson, and John Fleckner presented three amazing, profound papers on the theme of the ideal and the real.[2]  Each, in their own way, called for archivists to always remember the ultimate goal of archives.  It’s more than eliminating the backlog, ensuring that finding aids are properly encoded, and storage has an appropriate environment and security.  Their talks called on us to remember the role that archives play in knowing the truth, to promote social justice, and to preserve our cultural identity. 

For me, appraisal is the heart of the archival enterprise, tied to truth, justice, and cultural identity.  I believe it should drive everything that we do.  Archives may be useless if people have no access to locate and use the records, but before there is arrangement and description to support discovery, before patrons come into the reading room, archives have to have records.  Which records should be processed first, which  records take precedence for digitization and preservation, all relate to the appraised value of the records.

For me, the ideal of appraisal is that archives should capture and provide access to records that tell a complete, accurate, and authentic story of the past.   (Relative to the mission, of course; not every archives must tell the story of everything.)   That statement drives one of my post-modernist friends crazy.  "Your understanding of what's complete reflect the reality you've constructed.  Moreover, you can't collect everything, so the story will necessarily be incomplete."  This friend knows a lot about appraisal, so I don't discount his criticism lightly.  My question, back to him, was practical: if we don't accept complete, accurate, and authentic as a goal, what are we doing?  In the absence of such a goal, what's to say archivists can't collect what they find interesting, what they think is important?  Take about a skewed story of the past.  

He’s right. No archives has the capacity to acquire records that document every detail, but we can capture a representative sample.  And of course archivists have cultural blinders and personal biases that will influence the records they seek out and select for preservation.  Well, duh.  That's hardly a profound observation -- right up there with "do not put beans up your nose."  The challenge for archivists is how to adapt to that reality.  Individually, it's difficult -- if not impossible – to overcome their blinders.  Rather, I argue that they need to develop a diverse group of advisers, people with a range of perspectives.  Perfect? No.  Better that indulging in personal fancy? Yes.

My goal may be an impossible ideal, but I’ll stick with it.  Moreover, I personally believe archivists are ethically bound to pursue it. 

If appraisal is really so important, so essential to the profession, why must we do it so badly?  Still – thirty-nine years after Gerald Ham asked the question in his 1974 presidential address.[3]  As Cline noted, ideals are necessarily unobtainable.  They are not goals or objectives, but guide stars. Even if impossible, they’re essential.  They provide a compass to help us ensure we’re doing the right thing.  The challenge is to take the time to consider our ideals, to pause the drudgery of the daily grind and reflect on whether the work is truly meaningful.

In part, it’s easy to confuse the urgent with the important.  Time is rapidly consumed with patrons at hand, donors to call, and administrators wanting reports and meetings.  The immediacy of people demanding things of us seemingly leaves us little time for things that can be easily delayed – things that are often very important, if not urgent.  The disaster plan can wait a few days; yes, it’s important, but it’s unlikely a disaster will come along this week. (Noting with some irony that I’m posting this almost exactly eight years after Katrina hit New Orleans a week after SAA met there in 2005.)

A collecting policy is one of those important things that can easily be put off.  Most archivists have a good sense of what what’s in and out of scope.  That begs the question, is the scope right?  Is it outdated?  Is it too narrow or too broad?  The only way to know is to take the time to review it (or develop one that translates oral tradition to something formal).

Taking a structured approach to a collecting policy also helps us achieve a better policy.  Archivists have a number of tools to help identify those records that merit acquisition, including documentation planning, functional analysis, and macro-appraisal.  None will likely be a perfect fit, but often they can be tailored to the archives’ particular needs. 

For many working in archives, what to do is not the problem.  It’s how to manage time to do that.  At the meeting, it occurred to me that the appraisal class in Clayton State’s Master of Archival Studies program could help.  It provides a structure to consider the entire process, from mission statements, collecting criteria, and strategies.  At the end of the semester, students should have a complete, thoughtful collecting policy.  Like all courses, it considers how appraisal has changed in the digital era.

As important, using the course to review or develop a policy means that you have others who can give you input.  Because the class meets weekly for two hours, over sixteen weeks, you have time to reflect on each step in the process.  Because the courses are live, online lectures, you can take them regardless of where you live.  As a result, you can consult with colleagues and your collections readily accessible. 

Individuals working in archives and with archival collections are welcome to take selected courses they’re interested in.  Currently, tuition and fees for a course is approximately $1350, with no differential for out-of-state students.[4]  Please contact me if you’re interested.

[1] @hlnkim, 2:47 p.m. 15 Aug 2013. Session 211, including panelists Mark Greene, Judy Ruttenberg, and Jordon Steele.  I did not attend, so apologies if this is entirely out of context.
[2] “Ideal and Real: Striving for Archival Perfection in an Imperfect World.”
[3] “The Archival Edge,” American Archivist (January 1975).  Delivered in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on 3 October 1974, at the thirty-eighth annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists.
[4] Students must be admitted to the graduate school, which requires a bachelor’s degree.  Unfortunately, the program cannot accept students who live in Alabama, Alaska, Maryland, Minnesota, Oregon, or Wyoming at this time due to federal regulations.   

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