Handling Case Files in the Archives

Margot Note

Margot Note

August 23, 2021

A case file is a collection of documents relating to a particular investigation or supporting some administrative action.

Case files are sometimes referred to as project files or dossiers, although that term has a more general meaning as a file. Case files are often found in the context of social services agencies, and Congressional papers. Examples include criminal investigations, patient records, and tenure files. The types of documents in each file in a series of case files tends to capture the same categories of information about each case. Therefore, archivists can have case files in many records: legal and court records, social welfare records, public records and private papers.  

Case files have fundamental characteristics: 

  • They tend to focus on families and individuals, through the agency that establishes the case.
  • They occur in both public and private agencies.
  • Records creators can be individuals, but more often institutions.
  • Case files often contain personal information that impacts access, and thus appraisal.

A Short History

The literature suggests that case files first began to predominate in the 1930s when the organization and provision of health and welfare services became a major societal function, resulting in different records and a considerable increase in volume. Around that time, records were considered confidential, whereas previously there was more of a presumption of openness. Over time, case files tended to become more client-centered, resulting in more personal information. Thus, social welfare agencies began to develop policies to control access. 

Access Concerns

Unfortunately, due to the way institutions and organizations tend to do their work, the types of documents that one finds in case files also tend to wander into other administrative series. Archivists must understand the organization to anticipate where these kinds of files and documents might exist in a collection or record group.

Specific laws apply to access, such as the Privacy Act, Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA); while these are examples of American laws, other countries may have similar regulations. The ability to provide access to the records is a serious appraisal concern, and one which comes up frequently with case file types of material. Beyond the legal issues are ethical ones. Files contain potentially valuable, sensitive information on individuals who have no idea their records are in a public institution.

How do these appraisal issues factor into selection decisions? There are various options:

  • Do not accept the records.
  • Close the files for a period (often 50 or 75 years). 
  • Obliterate identifying information. 
  • Require researchers to sign a “hold harmless” statement. 
  • Provide access only to aggregate data or prohibit use of individual names. 
  • Review researchers’ notes.

These decisions will also be based on whether research value and use is social science or genealogical. If social science, then aggregate information often suffices. If genealogical, the identifying information is crucial.


Another option is sampling, the process of selecting items from a collection for preservation to stand for the collection as a whole. With sampling there is a tension between theory and practice. In theory, sampling is a method. In practice, how does an archivist carry this out?

Sampling preserves significant values of the whole in the portion selected for retention. Sometimes that is defined as culling the most significant, or most representative items. It is sometimes based on the idea that if a portion of the whole is chosen, one can generalize about characteristics. Sampling is often used to reduce bulk, to which avoids the more challenging appraisal decisions.

Sampling is usually applied to certain records, such as civil and criminal court case files, other public records files, Congressional constituent correspondence, and social welfare case files.

Making Decisions

Determining what to do with case files—to balance legal and ethical obligations against research values—depends on the nature of the records and the repositories that will preserve them. Navigating access involves thoughtful consideration by archivists and their colleagues. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

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

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