Third Thursdays #1!

Welcome to the inaugural Third Thursdays Monthly Appraisal Conversation! With this regular conversation series, we hope to spark regular, continued discussion among section members and interested others about the fundamental archival action of appraisal.

The question this month was:Based on your current collecting/experience, what is your biggest appraisal challenge?

Thank you to those who already responded to our first question– and its not too late! Please read and join the conversation in the comments section below–we hope to keep the conversation moving throughout the day on February 18!


[Note: we did not require respondents to sign their name, so for the sake of clarity, unsigned comments are numbered.]

Laura Uglean Jackson, University of California, Irvine : “At this very moment, my biggest appraisal challenge is appraising thousands of electronic documents (mostly emails) from a former UCI Chancellor. What makes it difficult is that all of the emails were filed individually into an electronic records system known as ExFiles. I believe the system was built by campus IT. Nothing is organized into groups or series, and the system includes confidential records. Although nothing is organized, the files contain keywords and subject metadata (because ExFiles does not support full indexing). These keywords and subject headings are inconsistent as they have been entered by various students and staff over the course of many years.

The Chancellor’s Office and IT were both hesitant to give me access to the full system, despite my (and my boss’s) best efforts. I met with both units and was able to view the system. After seeing how the emails were described, I concluded that full access to the system would not be necessary. Rather, I could make appraisal decisions based on the metadata alone. IT was able to download metadata from all non-confidential files sent/received between 2005-2012- approximately 9200 files. I am now using software called Open Refine to review the metadata and make a decision to take or not. It’s quite the slog, but the good news is that I’ve reviewed 7000 emails without having to look at each one individually. The bad news is that I still have 2000 to review and it’s getting harder to make broad decisions because I’ve already reviewed the low-hanging fruit.

Archivist #1:It could probably be boiled down to managing donor expectations and communication. Dealing with donors who wait until the last minute to contact the archives thereby leaving no time for a proper appraisal. Managing their expectations of what type of information we need from them to understand the collection and do the appraisal, and the limits of what we can do for them and their records.

Archivist #2:I think my biggest appraisal challenge has been and continues to be doubt – I am no hoarder, but I constantly wonder, am I rejecting too much material? Am I still accepting too much? How do I choose which is more important historically? Because we have to make choices, and be able to back them up.

Archivist #3: “One of the appraisal challenges I had in my former position was accepting material that may already be in the repository. It was especially true for University Archives, but also a problem with the Manuscripts. Reviewing donor/collection files and the finding aid didn’t always give me a sense of what we held, especially for the larger collections more recent collections. In the past, additions were inventoried but that practice had long fallen off due to time. And speaking of time, there was often no time to check before I went to visit a donor. It always seemed safest and faster to accept what I wasn’t sure about and sift through later. However, we were always short-staffed and we were running out of space so just accepting it to sort through later wouldn’t be an option forever. Also, the archivist that processed the collection was usually the most familiar with the contents, but the processing archivist usually wasn’t the one who appraised the collection.

Archivist #4: “I found it difficult to appraise material from bereaved donors. Often I was contacted shortly after a husband, wife, mother or father passed away and then asked to deal with the papers or a collection. There was always pressure from interested parties to move quickly before the opportunity was lost or material was thrown away (e.g., library administration, the deceased’s colleagues that wanted the material available for research, & family/friends that wanted to be helpful). I think the donors often weren’t ready to decide on disposition of the material if it didn’t fit within our collecting policies and were overwhelmed at the amount of material they had to deal with so asked us to take everything, or find a more appropriate repository. Which isn’t a bad thing to do but I didn’t always have time to follow through in this manner with every donation and neither did the rest of the staff, it was generally not our policy though we made exceptions. They also didn’t want to hear that the materials their loved one collected may not be appropriate for any repository because the materials lacked enduring value.

Archivist #5: “My biggest challenge is convincing my donors that their records do in fact have value – and even more so in aggregate. Donors are more prone to item-level selection (focusing on what might be “the important documents”) vs. an understanding of the value of seeing a continuous set of records created in context.

Archivist #6: “I work at a small local history archive that also has a genealogy collection. I am not a genealogist and my biggest challenge is re-appraising our genealogy books, newsletters and periodicals with the end goal of substantially weeding this collection. This is particularly a challenge because I am not a subject expert.

Do one or more of these responses resonate with you? Do you have suggestions, comments, or experiences to share? Can you suggest an article, book, or other helpful resource? Tell us in the comments!



6 thoughts on “Third Thursdays #1!

  1. Archivist #2’s comments definitely resonate with me. I recently started a permanent position as an archivist where I am doing appraisal, after working as a project archivist focused mostly on processing. So I am testing my appraisal wings as a new professional, and I constantly second guessing my thoughts and decisions. It helps to have more experienced archivists to talk through the issues with! Thanks for starting this discussion, Acquisitions and Appraisal Section!

    1. Amy, we’re glad that you found this interesting! Thinking about, talking about, and reading about appraisal are all ways that archivists seem to learn, as well as challenge, the “how” and “why” of what we are bringing into collections. We hope that providing opportunities for these kinds of peer conversations will be helpful every month!

    2. Talking through the questions with peers and colleagues is always a good idea–clarifying your own decisions as well as providing more diverse perspectives about the merit of a collection, records series, or other set of materials you’re reviewing. Document those discussions too–not just the final decision, but what went into it so another archivist down the road doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel or guess at what you were thinking. Even in processing I’m betting you were making appraisal decisions, so build on that experience too!

  2. One of my biggest challenges has been dealing with legacy collections and additions to these collections. We used to take everything from a donor but now we have a more refined review process where we have the donor do an inventory of their material and a staff acquisitions committee reviews the potential donation. We have had to re-educate many donors that you can not simply drop material off without proper review. Our collection goals have also changed and we wonder how to deal with donors of legacy collections that continually add more and more material every year. Can you close collections? How many collections of a certain subject matter do you need to document a time/place?

    1. Jamie, thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation! It sounds like you have implemented some changes over time, to the benefit of your collection. Considering (and educating others about) the mission and scope of your institution, and aligning your collection goals– can be a challenge, but also an opportunity. Maybe other archivists and records managers, particularly (but not confined to) those who work with local history, could chime in on how they have wrestled with decision making about documenting time/place. Archivists who deal with particular formats, or particular domains, may have useful insights as well. Hopefully we will hear more of these thoughts in continued conversations!

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