Saturday, June 5, 2010

Archives 101--Part 1: Appraisal

It may be an alphabetical accident, but two actions that determine what material is added to the archives and when it is added start with the letter “A”—Appraisal and Accession. Here in Part 1 of Archives 101, we’ll address appraisal.

More often than not, when we clean house or prepare to move, we come across something that we haven’t seen in years that reminds us of what we were doing at an earlier moment of our lives. Usually, we spend some time reliving that moment, and then we decide whether to toss the item, keep it, or give it away. That, in a nutshell, is appraisal.

Appraisal is the act of looking at materials and determining their value. The Antiques Roadshow TV program provides an excellent example of appraisal in action. An antiques expert looks over a particular item—figures out who made it, where it came from, what its condition is, how it compares with similar items—and then, keeping all of that information in mind, he determines its value in monetary terms.

An archivist’s appraisal shares all of these same steps except the last one; instead, an archivist’s final step is to determine: is this material worth keeping or not? Archivists are interested in the long-term or enduring value of the material that we choose to keep—though we recognize that some items may be of significant monetary value, too. A letter signed by Abraham Lincoln may be of monetary value simply because of his signature—but the content of the letter may be of even more significant value to historians and archivists.

Most of us don't have a Lincoln letter in the attic, but often we do have letters or email with family and friends, photographs of get-togethers and special events we've attended, matchbooks or postcards from places we've visited, and perhaps even flyers that we've been handed as we're walking around the city. All of these items document our lives and activity in the places where we've lived or visited. As such, their value may not be high in monetary terms, but their value in documenting social activity is very high--certainly on a personal level to each of us--and possibly to others who are interested in a particular time period and place. For archivists, value is often linked to context.

Archivists usually appraise large collections of material twice: the first time, to determine if the collection is worth keeping long-term, and the second time, to examine the same material in closer detail when it is being organized and described. Once a collection has been appraised and the archives has decided to accept it, then the material is accessioned. Stay tuned for Archives 101--Part 2: Accession.


  1. I look forward to this Archives 101 series. Are there additional readings you can recommend to go along with each part in the series, or perhaps any examples from from SFPL?
    Chris Salvano, MLIS 2010

  2. The Society of American Archivists has an "Archival Fundamentals Series" which addresses all aspects of archives management. "Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts" by F. Gerald Ham is the SAA volume most appropriate for this post. I noticed that the SAA website ( has several classic texts available online under the tab "publications." "Keeping Archives," published by the Australian Society of Archivists, is also an excellent book. For fun you might want to check out the blog Derangement and Description (