Inviting the Archivist In: Rethinking On-Site Appraisal

Dominick Argento’s stairway

Kate Hujda, Curator of Manuscripts, Minnesota Historical Society

I’ll never forget my visit to the home of composer Dominick Argento. It was August 2018 when I arrived at the composer’s doorstep ready to conduct an on-site appraisal of his materials. During the visit, I discovered that his house possessed a narrow stairwell filled with framed black and white photos of well-known artists whom Argento had worked with throughout his long career. Each photo was accompanied by the artists’ signature, scrawled directly onto the wall next to where the photo was hung. It was clear that these artists had all left a demonstrable impact on the composer – and, in doing so, left a visible mark on the house itself. 

It was a remarkable collection. The photos illustrated the cultural milieu in which Argento worked and revealed the intimacy of some of his artistic relationships. As we ascended the staircase, I was firmly told that the photos would not be part of the composer’s archives. Rather, the stairwell was to stay exactly as it was for the next owner of the home to enjoy someday. I chose to respect this decision, and instead snapped a few quick photos for my accession file. 

Close up Dominick Argento’s stairway

On-site appraisals and surveys in the field can be invaluable tools. From a practical standpoint, reviewing materials in-person before acquisition can save precious time by reducing the amount of out-of-scope materials staff would need to weed or destroy later. On-site appraisals also allow archivists to make early note of condition or arrangement concerns, which helps streamline preservation or processing activities after acquisition. Additionally, visiting a donor’s home is an effective way to build positive relationships and increase the level of trust between the donor and the archivist caring for their records. In-home visits can also reveal aspects of the donor’s life or work that not otherwise documented in the donor’s papers.  

Despite the value in conducting on-site appraisals, there are problematic aspects of this practice worth addressing. First, not all institutions or individuals regularly conduct on-site appraisal or survey collections in the field prior to acquisition. As such, there are few resources or standardized criteria for this type of work. Most archivists end up adopting homegrown practices, relying on a mix of DACS standards, collection survey techniques, photos, and scribbled down notes.

There are also very real health risks associated with on-site appraisals. First, it is difficult to predict how an individual may act once an archivist is inside their home evaluating their personal belongings. The fact that it is often a lone staff person conducting on-site appraisals only adds to the level of risk taken on by the archivist reviewing materials on-site. Additionally, it can be difficult to predict the environment where the materials are stored. Donors may not be comfortable recognizing or communicating the presence of mold, pests, allergens, or other potentially hazardous environmental factors — and digging through boxes in cramped spaces has given me more than a few backaches. The COVID-19 pandemic now presents an additional health risk to on-site appraisals. 

While many of us have temporarily suspended in-person visits with donors during the current health crisis, a total suspension of such activities is not always practical or possible. Being able to make appraisal decisions on-site can save countless hours during accessioning and processing, which is especially valuable now as most archivists continue to spend limited hours in the office. Additionally, transporting materials to the archive can be a burden for the donor physically as well as financially, as not all donors have the mobility, transportation, or monetary means to bring or ship archival materials to the repository. Some record creators simply will not donate their materials unless there is a direct and low-barrier method for transferring to a repository.

The relationships built during in-person visits between a donor and the archivist make a return to on-site appraisals especially desirable. For example, my first visit to Argento’s home was not my last. A month later, I received a phone call from the composer. He and his family were by then in the process of moving the composer out of his house and into an assisted living community nearby. He told me there were materials for his collection still at the house, and asked if I would pick him up at his new residence so that we could look at the materials together. I agreed. 

Once there, he first showed me a handful of posters, which I accepted for his collection. We then spent the next half hour slowly roaming the halls of his now-former home together, him saying nothing, and me following behind him at a polite distance. The house was sold four months later in January 2019. Argento passed away less than a month after that. 

Though our last meeting had occurred under the pretense of acquiring more materials for the archives, I have since come to suspect that I was perhaps merely his ride that day — a means by which the composer could return to a cherished space one final time. My two in-person interactions forever changed my understanding of Argento, both as an artist and as a person.

Taking a temporary break from conducting on-site appraisals due to COVID-19 led me to reflect on past experiences working with collection donors in their homes, revealing the value of in-home appraisals as well as the issues associated with this practice. I believe that a larger conversation on the topic of how and why we conduct on-site appraisals within the archives field would positively benefit the entire profession. Now is the time to develop tools and strategies for ensuring safe and effective on-site appraisals moving forward.

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