A Primer on Archival Appraisal Values

Margot Note

Margot Note

September 30, 2019

Archival appraisal determines whether materials have permanent, research value within the context of the institution’s collecting policy and mission. Appraisal activities include examining records to discover their contents, provenance, order and completeness, authenticity and reliability, condition, related preservation costs, and intrinsic value.

When performing archival appraisal, archivists consider the primary and secondary values of collections. The records with archival value—value that is permanent, continuing, and enduring—within an organization may be small, often estimated to be about five percent of the total amount generated throughout an institution’s history. Archivists determine the ongoing significance or usefulness of collections to justify their continued preservation based on the information they contain.

Defining Primary Values

Primary values are those immediate to the record’s creation, such as its original administrative, legal, or fiscal purpose. Administrative values relate to the function for which people created the records; administrative values are sometimes described as functional values. Legal values consist of the value for the protection of the organization’s legal rights and interests or the rights and interests of other individuals and organizations. This value also refers to ownership. Lastly, fiscal values correspond to the value for the conduct of the organization’s financial affairs and the documentation of its monetary interests.

Most, but not all, primary values diminish with time so that eventually records are no longer needed for their original purpose. Many primary values expire when the activity that resulted in the creation of the record ends. For example, financial records are unneeded after seven years because the risk of an IRS audit has passed. We are free to shred them since their primary value has ended. This diminishment of usefulness is where the power of enduring value—the secondary value—comes into play. Archival repositories preserve records because they have historical value that will exist long after they cease to be of current use, and because their values will now be for others, such as a diverse array of researchers, rather than for current users.

Defining Secondary Values

Archival holdings have secondary values, both evidential and informational. Evidential values are the value of the materials as documentation of the operation and activities of the record-creating organization, institution, or individual. Three criteria for evidential value for organizational records are:

  • the position of the department in the hierarchy of the organization
  • the function of the department within the organization
  • the activities that are performed to complete their functions

Evidential values document the records creators in terms of policies, operations, and activities, acting more as an organizational history than the legal definition of evidence.

Another secondary value is informational, defined as the value for information about persons, places, events, or subjects other than the organization or individual who created the record. Informational value provides unique and permanent information that users can engage with in research.

Secondary values, unlike primary values, do not diminish with time. The uses of these records are often unforeseen and various, limited only by the historian’s or researcher’s imagination. For example, a 200-year-old inventory of a palatial estate served its primary value by documenting items to be sold at auction—a straightforward purpose at its time. However, the secondary value of the inventory to historians allows for a multitude of uses—such as the examination of material culture, sociology, and architecture and design, among many, many other topics.

Making Judgments

This evidential and informational dichotomy points to the separate roles of archival appraisal to document the history and functions of a specific organization or individual and the broader mandate to document society and people. Appraisal holds that justification of the retention of records must be established based on archivists who first must identify the primary and secondary values the records possess, and then make judgments as to when, if ever, these values decline to the point where disposal may be necessary.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist and consultant, is a guest blogger for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s.

Get your free copy of Margot’s brand new book for Lucidea Press, Demystifying Archival Project Management: Five Essentials for Success!

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