Conducting Reappraisal on Your Archival Collections

Margot Note

Margot Note

October 21, 2019
The Society of American Archives defines reappraisal as “the process of identifying materials that no longer merit preservation and that are candidates for deaccessioning”. Archivists continue to seek ways to accomplish responsible reappraisal and deaccessioning.

There are numerous articles, case studies, policies, and conference sessions on reappraisal and deaccessioning, yet despite the increasing amount of information, these practices remain controversial.

When is Reappraisal Appropriate?

Archivists may conduct reappraisal when the original appraisal was erroneous, the standards have changed since the collection was acquired, or the historical value of the material has changed over time. In my consulting practice, I’ve found that often no appraisal took place at the time of acquisition, especially when professional archivists didn’t manage the archives or when space wasn’t at a premium. No matter what the reason for conducting reappraisal, it should be systematic and nuanced, and is often expensive and time-consuming.

Can You Reappraise if You Never Appraised in the First Place?

Far too often what archivists have in their stacks was never appraised before acquisition, so using the term “reappraisal” is a misnomer. Reappraisal refers to appraising materials that are already part of a repository’s holdings, rather than something we are contemplating acquiring. Appraisal or reappraisal may occur at many stages in archival collections management, ranging from acquisition to accessioning to processing.

And in some cases, archivists take records they do not want in order to get materials that they do. When acquiring collections, sometimes what the donor considers archival-worthy may not be, but for the repository to receive the collection, they may have to take it all. Later, the archivist can prioritize processing to meaningful parts of the collection, while deciding later how to handle the more mediocre series.

Questions to Ask

In his oft-cited article, “No Grandfather Clause: Reappraising Accessioned Records,” archivist Leonard Rapport posits that reappraisal can be necessary, ethical, and appropriate. He poses a series of questions that archivists should ask when considering reappraising materials:

  • Would we acquire these materials if they were offered today?
  • Is there a reasonable expectation that anyone with a serious purpose will look for these records?
  • Will scholarship suffer if these records no longer exist?

Rapport implies that the purpose of reexamination is based more on issues of evidential value or the need to provide evidence of stewardship. Although he was talking about reappraising public records, consider applying the same ideas to papers, manuscripts, and other records.

A Counterargument

Archivist Karen Benedict counters Rapport’s arguments in the classic article, “Invitation to a Bonfire: Reappraisal and Deaccessioning of Records as Collection Management Tools in an Archives—A Reply to Leonard Rapport.” She urges that archivists should also consider these questions during reappraisal:

  • Is use a basis for reappraisal?
  • How effective is reappraisal in terms of expenditure of time and resources?
  • Why is a second decision any more accurate than the first?
  • How will donors react?

Proceed with Caution

No matter where you stand on reappraisal, remember that like anything else in archives, it should be done thoughtfully. Reappraisal requires a defined mission, a collecting policy, and appraisal guidelines. It shouldn’t be performed in an ad hoc or haphazard manner; it should be done systematically to ensure consistency, proper documentation, and ethical practice. Reappraisal requires transparency, accountability, and trust so that stakeholders may better understand archival practices. It may be performed when related records are examined as part of considering new acquisitions. A relative focus on controlling growth versus reducing current holdings should be a factor too.

Reappraisal is most appropriate when the original appraisal was deemed faulty or incomplete. Reappraisal doesn’t always lead to deaccessioning but is required as a first step towards the act of deaccessioning.

Margot Note

Margot Note

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