Advocating for Appraisal of Electronic Records

From a presentation given at the Acquisitions & Appraisal Section and Electronic Records Section Joint Meeting on August 3, 2019

By Christian Kelleher in collaboration with Cliff Hight, Susan Malsbury, and Kelsey O’Connell, leadership in SAA’s Acquisitions & Appraisal Section and Electronic Records Section.


At SAA, one can’t talk advocacy without acknowledging the work of recent SAA President Kathleen Roe who asked the question, “Why Archives?,” and challenged SAA members to go outside our comfort zone to advocate for archives and archivists. Among the answers to the question “Why Archives?” is of course one of value, and value is at the heart of appraisal. That “value proposition” remains central to advocating for appraisal and has some unique applications for appraisal of electronic records. I won’t go deep into theories of appraisal here, except to note as Geof Huth has written that, “Appraisal is determining whether a record has archival value, whether that value is significant enough to the archives mission to warrant its permanent retention, and whether that institution has the resources to maintain that record.” Advocating for appraisal will enable us to discover, explore and promote the first two conditions, with hopes of rectifying any shortcomings in the last.


Advocacy is communication, and a useful, simple communication model is the Shannon-Weaver Model, which is fundamentally just four parts: sender, message, channel, and receiver. We should keep in mind all four of those parts as we consider advocating appraisal of electronic records. We start our consideration where the Shannon-Weaver model ends, with the receivers of advocacy, and think of the best messages, channels, and even senders to serve as advocates. It can be valuable to not just advocate at someone, but to engage the receiver of your advocacy in the bigger goal. As Kathleen Roe said, make them part of the why, not just the what or how. And finally another short list that Jinfang Niu developed as a model of “Appraisal and Selection for Digital Curation” that includes four elements: mission alignment, value of digital resources, cost, and feasibility (or perhaps impact). Each of those criteria engages with advocacy—and receivers of advocacy—in a different way.


So receivers: To whom do we advocate, and what is the message and medium for them? Let’s start at the beginning, with records creators. Geof Huth writes, “If at all possible, archivists should work with records creators to understand each creator’s functions or activities and the records these create.” Working with creators we can better understand the context of creation, identify problems that may bring authenticity into question, find ways to fix problems, understand the value of the content and the records system(s), and possibly get some help in accessing files that require special software or hardware that the creator may have but not the archives, or things like password protection, encryption, or compression that the archivist alone may not be able to overcome. But records creators may feel that they are ill-equipped to help in this work, may not have time, or may think that all their records are historically important so no appraisal is necessary—we should just take it all. By advocating to include records creators in appraisal, we can highlight mission alignment, and consider value, cost, and feasibility. Creators have a stake in their “digital afterlife”—their archival legacy—and their engagement will help us preserve what we should and what we can. We can manage expectations and build valuable collections through well-conceived and expressed policies and procedures, use AIMS framework questionnaires, and collection development statements that aren’t just the what and how, but also the why. And those of us with development or advancement offices can engage those fundraising professionals in the process to build collections and have a deeper connection with donors. And that’s a great way to advocate to those same fundraisers why resources are needed to dedicate to appraisal, and find support for those resources.


Of course, to do this work requires time and resources—and advocacy to resource allocators in our institutions. When possible, these people should also be involved in the why, tied to the mission and values. Be collaborative in appraisal. Engage IT systems administrators in the appraisal with records creators. They will be better prepared to budget, plan and design infrastructure for both regular and unexpected growth, and to know why specialized software and hardware is needed. Demonstrate to supervisors and department heads that well-appraised, cleaner, less noisy digital archives yield stronger collections and require less processing—or reappraisal and re-processing—later, so they can see why “cheap” digital storage of every digital file isn’t better than human expertise and digital archives appraisal tools. Share the scholarly production of researchers’ work in electronic records, or the personal stories of constituents protecting their rights, with library deans or organization administrators. That’s how they’ll know why you need the budget for increased preservation storage. And of course if you share a well-designed appraisal report with them, they’ll also know how you are being cost effective through your technical appraisal efforts to de-duplicate files, expunge personally identifiable information, and identify problematic or obsolete file formats. These efforts may require code switching to yield the best results. But don’t be afraid to ask and advocate; they want to see the institution successfully achieve its mission, and we know that good appraisal will help it better do that.


We need to advocate for appraisal of electronic records well beyond our institutions, too, to our professional organizations, academic and research programs, government and funders. We need to continue and expand efforts in our own research and scholarly agenda, which can be useful at all levels of appraisal advocacy, including with records creators and organization administrators.


In a recent American Archivist Keith Pendergrass, Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh, and Laura Alagna advocate for better digital appraisal efforts, tools, and resources “Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation.” They propose that “cultural heritage professionals must be selective in their appraisal of digital content, critically examining the content they deem worthy of long-term preservation to ensure that only content with enduring value is permanently retained” so as to reduce the environmental impacts of resulting digital preservation. They stress both financial and environmental sustainability impacts of appraisal of electronic records, and call for local resources, including person hours, to be put to the effort, and for national standards to be adjusted to accommodate the concerns. That’s an argument that I think would resonate with my library dean: that investment in staff time, training, and tools to “prevent the preservation of truly ephemeral or duplicative material” will yield better archives and help toward a sustainable environment.


The 2016 UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force’s Guidelines of the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation highlights that, “This is the paradox of selection in the digital age. Selection is as essential, as it is economically and technically impossible, and often legally prohibited, to collect all current digital heritage. Selecting for long-term preservation will thus be a critical function of heritage institutions in the digital age.” They advocate for improved policies and systems—even domestic and international legislation—to support archives’ and heritage professionals’ ability to better appraise and select original or unique records.


Huth, Niu, and others present feasibility as an appraisal criteria. This is technical appraisal, dependent on the technical capacity of the preserving archives. As Niu recognizes, “Some preservers refuse to accept digital resources in certain file formats or stored on certain storage media because they cannot preserve those files.” Ross Harvey and Dave Thompson lamented that “the inability to have access to an appropriate rendering environment for a given format may result in the removal of material from an archive, despite the high value of its intellectual content.” We need to advocate to develop tools and strategies to collectively overcome that condition, so we don’t lose valuable records just because we don’t have the technical capacity to manage them.


This list of scholarly and professional appraisal advocacy also includes the NSF-funded Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, and the Mellon-funded Task Force on Technical Approaches for Email Archives, among others. Particularly regarding appraisal of electronic records, archivists leading advocacy efforts in the literature and in the classroom will have a considerable impact on archives in the future. We need to advocate for these challenging, systemic things—if you will excuse me quoting from one of the greats speaking in my hometown of Houston, Texas—“not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone.”




Harvey, Ross, and Dave Thompson, “Automating the Appraisal of Digital Materials.” Library Hi Tech 28(2), 2010, 313-322.


Huth, Geoff, “Appraising Digital Records.” In Appraisal and Acquisition Strategies, Michael Shallcross and Christopher J. Prom, eds. Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2016.


Niu, Jinfang, “Appraisal and Selection for Digital Curation.” International Journal of Digital Curation 9(2), 2014, 65-82.


Pendergrass, Keith L., Walker Sampson, Tim Walsh, and Laura Alagna, “Toward Environmentally Sustainable Digital Preservation.” American Archivist 82(1), 2019, 165-206.


Roe, Kathleen, “Why Archives?” American Archivist 79(1), 2016, 6-13.


UNESCO/PERSIST Content Task Force, Guidelines for the Selection of Digital Heritage for Long-Term Preservation, 2016.



One thought on “Advocating for Appraisal of Electronic Records

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s