Navigating Selection in Archival Practice

Margot Note

Margot Note

April 15, 2024

Archivists bear a profound responsibility when selecting materials for preservation. Their choices are influenced by a wide range of criteria.

These reflect their role as proactive participants in shaping and deciphering historical documentation.

This selection process is far from straightforward, given the limitations of long-term preservation and ongoing accessibility challenges. Archivists know that not all records created can be kept perpetually, and must exercise discernment.

Furthermore, they recognize the importance of seeking advice from stakeholders, and acknowledge that their power to select materials does not diminish or usurp the authority held by the creators or sources of these materials.

Capturing the Essence

One of the key considerations in selection is the preservation of historically, culturally, or socially significant materials. Archivists aim to capture the essence of a time, place, or community through the materials they choose to preserve, such as documents that shed light on important events, influential individuals, and transformative movements. Materials of particular research or educational value are also prioritized, as they contribute to a deeper understanding of the past and provide resources for researchers.

However, the constraints of long-term preservation complicate the task of selection. Not all materials can be kept in perpetuity due to the associated costs, storage limitations, and the inherent fragility of certain formats. As such, archivists must weigh a material’s value against its preservation’s practical considerations. This practice requires a balance between the desire to capture every nuance of history and the necessity of making difficult choices about what can be preserved and made accessible.

Furthermore, the challenge of accessibility adds another layer of complexity to selection. Archivists recognize that the purpose of preservation is not just to lock materials away in a vault but to make them accessible to a wide range of users. Therefore, they must consider their selected materials’ potential use and interest to scholars, students, and the public.

Not in Isolation

Archivists understand the importance of seeking perspectives from stakeholders. Collaboration with creators, donors, and interested communities ensures the selection process is well-informed. Creators and sources of materials have a vested interest in how their contributions to history are represented, and their input can provide insights that enhance the collection’s relevance.

While archivists play a pivotal role in selection, they do not view their authority as reducing or overtaking that of the creators or sources of materials. Instead, they recognize the importance of collaboration and shared decision-making. Archivists are mindful that creators have a unique perspective and a connection to the materials they generate. Their insights are invaluable in ensuring that materials selected for preservation align with the creators’ intentions and the broader historical context.

Moreover, archivists are sensitive to the ethical considerations that underpin the selection process. They must navigate privacy, confidentiality, and sensitivity issues, especially when dealing with personal or confidential materials. In these cases, archivists must balance the imperative of transparency and access with the need to protect individuals and communities from harm or exploitation. The ethical dimensions of selection require archivists to engage in thoughtful reflection and consultation.

Other Policies

Well-defined acquisition and deaccessioning policies often guide the selection process. These policies provide a framework for decision-making, ensuring that the selection of materials is consistent, transparent, and aligned with the mission and goals of the archival institution.

Deaccessioning, or removing materials from an archival collection, is a particularly challenging selection aspect. Archivists must make difficult decisions about deaccessioning materials that no longer meet the collection’s criteria, are redundant, or have deteriorated to the point of being unsalvageable. This process should be approached with sensitivity and adherence to ethical and legal guidelines.

Sense of Duty

Ultimately, archivists dedicate themselves to the responsible stewardship of the historical record. They approach the selection of materials with a sense of duty and a commitment to preserving the past for the present and future benefit. They shape and interpret history with integrity, transparency, and a reverence for the power of collaboration. Archivists recognize that their choices in selecting materials have a lasting impact and strive to ensure that their decisions reflect the richness and complexity of the human experience.

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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