Introduction to Macro-Appraisal

Margot Note

Margot Note

May 16, 2022

Macro-appraisal, according to the Society of American Archivists’ (SAA) Glossary definition, is: 

“a theory of appraisal that assesses the value of records based on the role of the record creators, placing priority on why the records were created (function), where they were created (structure), and how they were created, rather than content (informational value).” 

Macro-appraisal includes functional analysis, but it goes beyond function to incorporate the three-way interaction of function, structure, and citizen. Macro-appraisal was introduced in the National Archives of Canada around 1991 to reform government records appraisal. It is described as a planned, research-based, top-down, functions-centered approach that focuses especially on the citizen’s interaction with the state.

Macro-appraisal can also be seen as a response to several problems with contemporary appraisal practice. It is hard to provide agencies with timely responses; they are doing their regular work and are not about to stop for archivists. Agencies and records creators may not prioritize their work, at least not in the ways that archivists would like them to. It also addresses the increasing problems of bulk and the importance of electronic records.

Concentration on Process

The focus is on the process and not the records. By process, macro-appraisal means the process in which a function is articulated, based on the interaction between structure and individual. Thus, one appraises the context in which records are created rather than the records themselves.

Macro-appraisal includes a planned, research-based, top-down, functions-centered approach. In addition, it focuses on the citizen’s interaction with the state and emphasizes processes, not records. Archivists concentrate on the functional analysis of an organization, reviewing its functions, structures, culture, and record-keeping systems. If the functional analysis reveals lacuna in what is documented, archivists try to fill in the gaps to create a more representative collection. As a combination of theory, strategy, and methodology, it is a government-wide plan for the disposition of records because it prioritizes agencies. Macro-appraisal provides criteria for assessing programs and functions within agencies by providing a methodology for appraisal within each planned submission.

Five Macro-appraisal Steps

Five core steps include: 

  1. Determining the complexity and relative importance of various functions, subfunctions, programs, and activities.
  2. Researching to pinpoint the offices or departments where the most important functions take place.
  3. Understanding the nature and most focused site of the citizen’s interaction with the government.
  4. Forming a macro-appraisal hypothesis of where the best records are.
  5. Testing that hypothesis by appraising a selected group of records, looking for duplication with other areas.

By following these steps, archivists decide which functions and activities should be documented, and determine who would create those documents, the form they would take, and those with whom the creator of the records would interact. The goal is to create collections that reflect society’s values by examining the interaction of individuals with their government. Thus, at its essence, macro-appraisal theory is based on an articulation of appraisal theory (the value of the records) as distinct from archival theory (the nature of the records).

Benefits in Context

The benefits of macro-approach include providing context and forcing a planned rather than a random approach to archival management. Macro-appraisal still allows micro-appraisal and even encourages it to confirm, reject, refine decisions; it also supports secondary values. Yet, macro-appraisal poses problems. It is resource-intensive. Issues related to changes in records creators, and shifting of functions, remain. Some argue that it is limited in its applicability to non-government settings. While not ideally suited to all environments, macro-appraisal supplies a lens to examine the documentary universe and determine what records should be preserved to represent our world accurately. 

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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