Appraisal for Digitization

Margot Note

Margot Note

February 27, 2023

Selection is an indispensable tool for digitization. Archivists apply their knowledge to selection criteria, matching institutional priorities to their collections, resulting in a representation of history with enduring value.

Appraisal Defined

Appraisal, in an archival context, identifies materials offered to an institution with sufficient value to be accessioned depending on the provenance and content, authenticity and reliability, order and completeness, condition, and intrinsic value. Appraisal assesses materials, balancing their values and usefulness against maintenance and management costs. Selection is crucial because maintaining collections is expensive, and expenses related to digital materials are significant.

Appraisal depends on factors such as mission statements, acquisition criteria, and collecting strategies. Therefore, appraisal policies should be flexible enough to accommodate changing definitions of historical value, encourage consistency, and ensure accountability. 

To determine whether materials meet the institutions’ criteria, archivists ask, “Why should I save this?” and “Why should I save this?” While the first question addresses the material’s value as evidence, the second queries its appropriateness for the repository. 

Collections should have robust documentation and chain of custody. They should also display the depth of the subject matter, genres, and formats and be in reasonable condition and quantity. Archivists consider the worthiness of materials without provenance or description; those needing significant conservation, research, or arrangement; those duplicated elsewhere; those with access or usage restrictions; or those too costly to acquire or manage. Selection results in a high-quality, cohesive collection that fulfills the institution’s needs. 

Primary and Secondary Values 

Appraisal distinguishes between primary and secondary values. Primary values are those immediate to the record’s creation: the original administrative, legal, or fiscal purpose. After the first purpose is complete, records can also acquire secondary values for historical research: evidential and informational. Evidential values reflect the records’ importance as evidence of the organization’s functions, policies, and operations for accountability rather than legal purposes. Informational value relates to other uses of records for documentation of society or historical information, providing unique and permanent information for research purposes. 

Traditionally, records are valued for their informational content. The prevalent notion that materials can only be appraised for their informational values may have developed because acquisition and processing have obscured their evidential values. Only the informational value remains intact when records lack provenance and original order. 

The context of the record’s creation, original and subsequent use, preservation history, authorship, purpose, message, and audience inform evidential values. Digitization may obliterate evidential value because digital surrogates risk losing evidential value due to obscured context and circumstances. Viewing records with the archival principles of provenance and original order intact makes determining evidential values possible.

Intrinsic and Artifactual Values

Archivists appraise intrinsic and artifactual values. A record’s physical or relational qualities (based on its affiliation to an individual, family, organization, place, or event) create intrinsic value. It is inherent in its original form and independent of its informational or evidential value. Artifactual value is the significance of an item based on its physical characteristics rather than its intellectual content. For example, materials, including photographs, should be aesthetically appealing to fulfill their research potential and be reproducible for articles, publications, and exhibits.

Records with intrinsic value have qualities that make their original form the only archivally acceptable form for preservation. These characteristics may include aesthetic quality, content, usage, market value, uniqueness, age, or scarcity. Intrinsic and artifactual values determine whether materials should receive conservation treatment in their original format or be reformatted as a copy and whether security or access protections are necessary. 

Technology as a Tool

Digitization enables broader access to cultural heritage collections, and that increased access serves many functions from education to entertainment. Evidence demonstrates that audiences can leverage the power of online access and use collections innovatively. Furthermore, given the current state of analog media deterioration, creating surrogate copies of a collection is a far better alternative than losing documentary evidence. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

If you’re interested in this topic and eager to learn more, please join us for “Selection for Digitization”, the third in Margot Note’s latest free webinar series, on Wednesday, March 29, 2023 at 11 a.m. Pacific, 2 p.m. Eastern. (Can’t make it? Register anyway and we’ll send you a link to the recording and slides afterwards). Register now or call 604-278-6717.

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