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Session 4: Providing a Focus or Limiting a View?

How do I appraise thee? Let me count the ways: the archival imperative and the construct of appraisal.

Helen Morgan

Australian Science Archives Project

Midway through writing and thinking about this paper I began reading Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride. I began to read it walking back to work from the library, head down but not quite oblivious to traffic, and was immediately struck by the following:

Where to start is the problem, because nothing begins when it begins and nothing’s over when it’s over, and everything needs a preface: a preface, a postscript, a chart of simultaneous events. History is a construct, she tells her students. Any point of entry is possible and all choices are arbitrary.[1]
Construct - choice - arbitrariness. I had found the perfect literary quotation for my paper, a mirror of my thoughts on archival constructs and appraisal. And by a Canadian no less, which was rather apt, as I had wanted to talk about the most recent explorations of functional appraisal in the archival world, by the Canadians and the Dutch. Not only that, but to ponder construct in relation to appraisal and the archival imperative. What underpins our appraisal decisions? Is there a fundamental shared mission and vision in the archival world? What is the potential for ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ in this world? Is perception reality? How do description and appraisal operate together in contemporary archival practice?

In the brief time allotted me this morning I would like to explore these questions, by examining the more recent Dutch and Canadian approaches to appraisal, and by reflecting upon ASAP’s current experiences in the Victorian power industry and the continuing development of our processes. The basic point I wish to make today I take again from Canadian writing, this time archival:

The appraisal process must include detailed examination of the records, which remain the ultimate manifestation of functions and activities.[2]
How do I appraise thee?
Let me count the ways:

The records survey, the disposal schedule and the appraisal checklist. Approaches driven by budgetary and physical constraints, analyses which focus on organisational structures and functions, and decisions justified by that oft quoted, magical figure of only 1 to 5 % of records having archival value. Collecting projects and documentation strategies.

These are some of the tools and methodologies used by archivists to appraise records and determine their value, to decide their fate. More recent methodologies of appraisal have focused on functions, activities and organisational structures, moving away from approaches more concerned with the research value of records, and the records themselves. Reality, truth and objectivity however, don’t necessarily seem to flow on from this search for a more reasoned and logical basis for appraisal decisions. What is construct, and what is real? What is the archival imperative, and how does it impact upon our practices?

A construct, we know, is a concept of the mind. A thing built up, made by fitting parts together - an interpretation. Archival constructs are intellectual expressions and interpretations of the perceived actuality of records, controlling and facilitating access and understanding. Archival description systems are constructs, built upon constructs, and are methodologies too - "the creation of a representation of archival materials", according to ISAD(G).[3] Most archivists, I suspect, would agree that, while accepting standard definitions of archival constructs such as series, given a group of records we would not all interpret the definitions in the same way, nor agree upon the same archival units of management.

Why is this? What is the archival imperative, the thing which drives us, the core reason for what we do?

The text Keeping Archives, in relation to appraisal, tells us the archival imperative is "to capture an appropriate record of our society",[4] while our professional body describes the archivist’s mission as: ensuring "records which have value as authentic evidence of administrative, corporate, cultural and intellectual activity are made, kept and used".[5] Another commentator suggests that the role of the archivist is to "consciously" pass on to later generations, "the most concentrated and authentic traces of the way our society was managed".[6] Notably, to "consciously" pass on. But what potential for objectivity is there in concepts like "concentrated" and "authentic", or "highest archival value" and "most important", terms commonly used by authors writing on appraisal? Is it possible to extract these concepts from records objectively?

The ascribing of value through appraisal can be a contentious issue. The archivist’s concept of value hinges upon their concept of their core role. As the differing notions of this imperative I have just described show, there is room for many views, potential for many values. And in the same way that archival constructs shape what we do, value - archival value extracted through the practice of appraisal - is a construct with its own agenda, like history - a fictionalisation of taste.

I sometimes wonder whether some archivists are just frustrated historians. When I began thinking about appraisal and archival constructs for this paper I read some of the writings on the archivist historian debate in Archives and Manuscripts. In an article titled "The archivist: scholar or administrator?", the author criticised finding aids whose listings appeared to ‘value’ everything equally "when", she said, "the archivist knows that some are gems and some dross".[7] The author continued, "Are too many finding-aids lacklustre and of little assistance?", stating, "Archivists do themselves a dis-service in not putting their knowledge into the finding-aids, which should be regarded as scholarly literature".[8] Imposing what and whose concepts of value? Putting what and whose knowledge into the guides?

What does knowing the records mean?
How do I appraise thee?

The National Archives of Canada is currently using a macro-appraisal approach, applying top down research into functions, tasks and activities, that is, examining the importance of the context of records creation and identifying, as recently expressed in Archivaria, "the key areas where the best archival records are likely to be found".[9] Micro-appraisal, that is, examining the records themselves, is then performed to test the macro hypotheses. This approach is seen to deliver a reasoned and logical basis for appraisal decisions. Catherine Bailey has recently examined macro-appraisal as practised at the National Archives of Canada, in great depth in Archivaria. Some of the constraints she identified in using this approach are worth stating:

The need for large amounts of supporting research, potential difficulties in coping with massive and rapid changes to the record creator, and the challenge of dealing with central registry systems which blur the distinction between functions.[10]
A good point at which to reflect upon ASAP’s experience with the Victorian power industry, and the development of the tool which we used, among other things, to manage the appraisal process.

Privatisation and the carving up and outsourcing of the industry created competing demands among stakeholders for information and left an unmanaged bulk of records scattered throughout the state of Victoria. This led to some rather enjoyable excursions and experiences for us. On my second day as an ASAP employee I found myself accessioning records out of a shipping container in the very bracing atmosphere of Mount Beauty in the Victorian High Country, whilst another occasion saw me blowing the coal off dirty brown records in a shed in the middle of the open cut mine at Loy Yang. But how did we cope with the huge backlog of kilometres of records? To a number of distinct projects we applied the methods that ASAP has been developing and honing in the field for over 12 years. We developed and used a database tool which documented the records continuum, the total records environment as found, and the archival decisions we made, which processed records, created finding aids and continues to facilitate access and manage physical locations. We used the archival constructs of Accession, Series and Inventory, along with Provenance, to document and capture context and relationships - document and capture them in a relational database format.

This documentation process is our equivalent of the supporting research that forms part of the Canadian and Dutch approaches to appraisal. The process begins with accessioning. The ASAP concept of Accession, as was explained yesterday, is based on a physical grouping of records as found. It is not a transfer consignment accepted into custody, and it is not an amorphous group of unseen records. Accessioning is the process where information is gathered to make appraisal decisions. As a part of this process series and provenance entities can also be identified and established in the database. The aim is not to complete series and provenance descriptions at this stage, for as I said earlier, the records may, on more detailed examination, reveal different patterns and meanings. The aim is to begin the identification process, capturing the information available from the records at hand, in the time at hand.[11] We use this information to determine the level of processing of the records. So begins appraisal.

Inventory processing follows accessioning. During this phase contextual information is documented at a more in-depth level. All records are documented at Inventory level, which might mean the unit of a letter, file, a box of records, a stuffed sheep, a framed photograph, or endless rows of records - bliss. I was pleased to read in the ISAD(G) Draft Design for an Archival Description System, hereafter referred to as the ISAD(G) Draft, that while "a top-down approach for archival description" was proposed, the qualifier was made that "in order to support archival description in all stages of the records life cycle (or records continuum), an archival description system supports bottom-up description as well. Higher levels of arrangement may be established after identifying the lower level units."[12] This is very much the way we work. By documenting all records identified during the accessioning process, at both Series and Inventory level, we aim to document the total records environment. Contextual information about records creation, function and use is gleaned from the records themselves, so that we can learn about the entities that created, used and accumulated them, as well as the relationships they define.

While seen as a strength, the large amounts of supporting research that form part of the Canadian macro-appraisal approach, were cited by Bailey as a major constraint. While preparing this paper I was very kindly given a copy of a National Archives of Australia discussion paper surveying the various approaches to appraisal, namely macro-appraisal and the Dutch PIVOT model. The problem with their own appraisal processes, the paper noted, is that they are slow and laborious, and that "following the process and completing the required documentation does not necessarily lead to appropriate outcomes".[13] But it need not be so.

Before I qualify this statement I’d like to have a look at the functional appraisal model of the Dutch, the PIVOT method developed by the National Archives of the Netherlands.

Where the Canadian and Dutch methods differ is in the attitude towards the records themselves. Basically, PIVOT appraisal is based on function, and regulations, and organisational charts, and lists - not on records. My impression of the PIVOT method comes mainly from Peter Horsman’s article, tantalisingly called "Appraisal on wooden shoes: the Netherlands PIVOT project". The wooden shoes, or clogs, are a metaphor for the PIVOT system of appraisal - "a cheap, strong tool, preventing archivists from sinking in the documentary mud". Peter notes that the French word sabotage derives from the word clog, klomp, sabot, and leaves the reader to draw their own conclusion from this statement.[14] I have done this, and concluded that the PIVOT system is indeed a form of sabotage in a records environment and one of which to be keenly aware.

The National Archives of the Netherlands were dealing with a huge backlog of records of more than a thousand linear kilometres and something had to be done. Mass reduction of this figure was sought, and the Archives mission supported this aim, focusing only on the main programs of the government and the relationship between government and society, that is, the areas deemed "most important".[15] "Theoretically", the author exclaims, "shiploads of records may be destroyed without their having been given a glance, without a single page having been read!"[16] I like Peter’s recollection of the metaphor here: the clog - a warm and safe tool which protects the PIVOT researchers from "sinking in the mud of bureaucratic documents". They "do not", he says, "need to go down into the basement . . . they hardly have any reason to be driven to madness when faced by the endless rows of files to be appraised".[17] Madness I can relate to, but endless rows?! Give me endless rows any day! And, as Peter himself said to me the other day over breakfast, some of us quite like the sensation of mud between our bare toes.

What I would like to ask Peter is how is the research done? What tools do they use for their analysis ? Is the documentation of the process which aids the appraisal decisions available alongside, or as a part of, the documentation which ultimately describes the late records of this government? How well documented are the shiploads of records which are destroyed? Could it really be possible that no records whatsoever from a particular function of government have any relevance beyond the immediate? That once the function ceases the record is irrelevant ? That a function on which the government spent so much of the taxpayers’ money could be deemed, once the deed is done, to have been irrelevant itself, or to have lost the need for accountability into the future? Are organisational charts and lists of functions, procedures, mandates and regulations really the most accurate reflection of what organisations and the people within them do?

Criticism of the PIVOT approach is discussed by Peter in his article, and is noted as mostly coming from outside the system and the archival community, being mainly from scholars and historians - but not genealogists apparently. I find that curious. Peter states that "their sources are hardly subject to PIVOT activities",[18] and I wonder what this says about the PIVOT researchers’ understanding of the nature and value of the records they are dealing with? What about informational and secondary value? Historians have objected to the destruction of social case files. When are case files deemed to be of no more use? In Victoria under the present government it appears, in relation to prisoners’ case files, the use ceases when the prisoner is transferred from the government penal system into the newly privatised prison systems. This unfortunate decision, or perhaps oversight, has been directly responsible for the suicide deaths in custody of 5 prisoners at Victoria’s Port Phillip Prison this year![19]

The objection has also been made that "a bureaucracy is a social system, which with its own unwritten laws, tends to define its own goals and strive towards self-perpetuation".[20] Anecdotal evidence that I have gathered during my time as an archivist at ASAP supports this. A few months ago at a training session with one of my power industry clients an attendee said to me, "oh we didn’t really like that RMS system, so we just went back to our old way and did what we wanted". A friend who works in a government agency related to me recently that they don’t trust the official record keeping system, or the records manager, and keep all the ‘good stuff’ in their own systems. The records manager has threatened the staff with prosecution under the Public Records Act, not a particularly useful tactic for gaining trust and compliance I would have thought! How do the functional appraisal models work when the record keeping systems and practices are not of a prescribable nature, or when information is held outside the official record keeping systems, or of which, after the fact, as with the records of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria, only a fragmentary record survives?

The assumption behind functional appraisal, again conveniently summarised for me by our newly named National Archives is, that: "Understanding functions leads to knowledge of procedures which leads to records: it is necessary for both appraisal and processing of the archives".[21] Yes, it is. But it is possible to turn that around and say, looking at records leads to knowledge and understanding of functions and procedures.

Interestingly, the ISAD(G) Draft states that "a description system is not a retrieval system",[22] but we would dispute that. According to the Draft, "After completion, the descriptions become part of another system, specifically for information retrieval", such as manual finding aids, hard copy guides and proprietary databases.[23] Why does the information need to be moved into other systems? I believe that with the tool and methods we have developed, soon to be launched on the archival world as onQ, the manner in which we document context, that is going to the records "themselves" and documenting context in context we are putting, or attempting to put as nearly as possible the knowledge of the records’ creators, not our perceptions of them, into our imposed archival description and control system.

If information is captured in a relational database format in the first place then you are saving yourself duplication of effort and, perhaps more importantly, bringing the user of this information right up to the archival processes and constructs - perhaps to the ‘actuality’ of the records themselves.

[1] Margaret Atwood, The Robber Bride, Virago Press, London, 1994, p. 4.
[2] Catherine Bailey, "From the Top Down: The Practice of Macro-Appraisal", Archivaria 43, p. 121.
[3] ICA Committee on Archival Automation, "Design for an Archival Description System: Application of ISAD(G). A Study", Draft Version 2, September 1996, p. 4.
[4] Keeping Archives, Second Edition, Thorpe, Port Melbourne, 1993, p. 189.
[5] ASA Home Page,
[6] Angelika Menne-Haritz, "Framework and aims of appraisal", Janus 1997.2, p. 9.
[7] Jan Brazier, "The archivist: scholar or administrator?", Archives and Manuscripts, vol. 16, no. 1, May 1988, p. 11.
[8] ibid.
[9] Bailey, p. 96.
[10] ibid., p. 122.
[11] Joanne Evans, "Structure of the ADS", Presentation at Archives and Reform - Preparing for Tomorrow, Australian Society of Archivists 1997 National Conference, Adelaide, 24- 26 July 1997,
[12] ICA, p. 4.
[13] Agency Services, Australian Archives, "Appraisal and Sentencing System: Discussion Paper", July 1997, p. 15.
[14] Peter Horsman, "Appraisal on wooden shoes: the Netherlands PIVOT project", Janus 1997.2, p. 35.
[15] ibid., p. 38.
[16] ibid., p. 39.
[17] ibid.
[18] ibid., p. 40.
[19] Thom Cookes, "Shredded files raise jail suicide risk", The Age, 10 January 1998, p. 3.
[20] Horsman, p. 41.
[21] Agency Services, Australian Archives, "Functional Appraisal Project", March 1997, p. 2.
[22] ICA, p. 5.
[23] ibid., pp. 5-6.

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Published by: Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb
Comments or questions to: ASAPWeb (
Prepared by: Helen Morgan
Graphics by Lisa Cianci
Date modified: 7 October 1999