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In this month’s blog we are going to explore the idea of appraisal and how records, documents and photographs become archives. Firstly let’s take a look at the definition of appraisal.
What is appraisal?
As usual when we look at archival theory and practice we must consider the ideas of Jenkinson and Schellenberg:
Jenkinson said that the process of appraisal should not be carried out by the archivist but the creator of records. "[The Archivists] Creed, the Sanctity of Evidence; his Task, the Conservation of every Scrap of Evidence attaching to the Documents committed to his charge; his Aim, to provide, without prejudice or afterthought, for all who wish to know the Means of Knowledge." (Jenkinson, Hilary, "The English archivist: a new profession", in Ellis and Walne 1980, pp. 236–59 (258–9).)
However Schellenberg, Jenkinson’s contemporary, argued that archivists should be involved in the appraisal process the archivist is by definition “the professional who selects documents used for administrative purposes and preserves them, mainly for scholarly use.” (Livelton, Archival Theory, Records and the Public, 67).
Today appraisal is still about the selection of records and archivists are more likely to be involved in this process rather than just taking in records selected by the creators and accessioning them without any appraisal work. They will of course follow a collection policy to determine what can be accepted into their collections however there are a variety of theories or methods which may or may not affect how they examine material as potential archives.
What are the different methods of appraisal?
There are many methods of appraisal; these are just a few with some quick definitions:
This is a more active strategy for collecting records and considers cross discipline approaches to use expertise from different fields not just archives. It requires archivists to look at documents in more detail to ensure they archive records relating to different issues, activities or localities.
Macro-appraisal and functional analysis
This is a top down approach to analysing records and deciding if they should be archived. It assesses the value of records at an organisational level rather than looking at individual files or items.
Pragmatic acquisition strategy (1990s Minnesota Historical Society)
This involves a top down approach analysing the records of businesses against what has already been archived. It then creates levels to determine how thoroughly activities should be document from thoroughly documented to preserving the minimum amount of evidence required.
Record based analysis
Also known as a micro-appraisal or bottom up approach, archivists will appraise records by analysing the content and context of individual items in the collection; usually applied to small acquisitions. As most of what we take in externally and internally are small collections this is usually my preferred method of appraisal. However it doesn’t mean that I would always analyse records in this way.
Although there is guidance and a number of theories for archivists to follow it is important to remember there are no right or wrong answers when it comes to appraisal.
Our recent accessions
As we have been discussing the selection of archive material and the process where records become archives I thought I would share with you some the items which have become part of the Royal Voluntary Service Heritage Collection this year.
Since January we have had 5 long service medals, 2 clasps and 1 MBE donated to the collection from past volunteers all who would have been completing 40-60 volunteer duties a year for 15 to 27 years. Most of these donations have also been accompanied by biographies and personal papers relating to the volunteers work with WVS/WRVS.
Local Office Material
Local Royal Voluntary Service branches sometimes send us materials for the archives, this year we have had photographs and newspaper cuttings from East Kilbride, publicity materials from West Sussex and photographs, a plaque and medal from Litchfield Darby and Joan Club.
Knitting, marketing and publicity
We have also received some more items which are a bit different to what you might imagine archives collect including: knitted dolls with a knitted 80 created for our anniversary last year; publications created about the charity, it’s activities and the OXO Tower Exhibition and two articles one from Wiltshire Life Magazine and one in the Journal of the Social History Society on salvage during the Second World War.
Appraisal is an essential part of an archivist role when considering the acquisition of new material into the collection. Over the years and since Jenkinson first wrote down his theories on the archivist’s role in appraisal it has changed and developed. Now most archivists will follow Schellenberg’s idea of being involved in the process and sometimes take it further and are more active than even he intended. Today there are many methods which archivists may use to appraise material but they can be split in most cases in to two categories a top down approach which appraises on the basis of analysing whole collections. The other is a bottom up approach which appraises collections on a file or item basis. However Archivist may not always think in terms of which theory they will use they will always try to fairly appraise everything that may become part of their collection. As is evident above archives still receive many items on a monthly/yearly basis for their consideration.
“Traditional” skills needed by archivists today include
arrangement, description and an understanding of the importance of original
order. Applying all three skills/theories when repackaging and cataloguing a
series can lead to issues when original order is being kept to but does not fit
with the original order of the collection (you can find out more about
collections and series and their structure here). However this can be easily
solved with some Quantum Archiving (as thought of by our Archivist). In this week’s blog we look at what Quantum
Archiving is and how this has been applied in the Royal Voluntary Service
Archive & Heritage Collection.
Quantum Archiving is similar to the second interpretation of
Quantum theory known as the many-worlds or multiverse theory; where an object
can exist in many states in a number of parallel universes. In archiving, a collection could exist in
many states: analogue; digital or a reconstructed version e.g. in a transcript
to name a few. These formats would be in different places (universes) such as a
store room, a server or a database. Over
the years we have been working on preserving and making accessible the 300,000
fragile pieces of paper which hold the hidden histories of millions of women
and men who have given their time as volunteers to WVS and WRVS between 1938
and 1996 also known as the Narrative Reports. In 2018 we started work on more
recent reports written in 1980s and 1990s however this part of the series is
very different from earlier reports.
By 1980s the geographical structure of WRVS had changed from
being organised into twelve regions following the Civil Defence Corps
organisational structure to the follow Local Authorities restructured in 1974.
This meant WRVS was split into districts rather than centres, thus fewer
reports were produced and less frequently from monthly to quarterly and finally
biannually. As well as writing monthly narrative reports areas particularly
counties wrote annual reports. These reports were usually kept separately in
the archive’s collections from the Narrative Reports however when the 1980s
annual reports for some counties and districts arrived at HQ they were stored
with the Narrative Reports for those areas.
When volunteers started working on the reports carrying out
basic preservation and giving sub series reference numbers they noticed that
sat on top were some annual reports. The team then discussed what we should do
and how they should be ordered. Should they
be classed as Narrative Reports? Should they be moved to the collection of annual
reports? It was decided that the physical order should be kept as the
original order while the catalogue record, reference and description would
reflect the order of the rest of the archive’s theoretical structure e.g.
fonds, series and files. Therefore the annual reports exist in two different states
in two different “universes”; the physical and the theoretical. To further
complicate matters the 1980s and 1990s reports are ordered differently to the
1938-1979 reports. Earlier reports are ordered by region then date then county
then centre but after 1980 they have been ordered by region then county then
centre then date. A slight difference but means that they are physically stored
in their original state but described and referenced as the rest of the series
In conclusion arrangement and description (including
reference) do not always fall in to line in archiving. Therefore a collection
can exist in two different states in a physical and theoretical/digital world. This
example is just one of many and I’m sure we will continue receiving surprises
from the Narrative Report collection which makes us look at the different ways
it can exist.
Between 2014 and 2016 Royal Voluntary Service worked on its
Voices of Volunteering project. Its aim was to collect up to 80 oral histories, which capture the memories and
recollections of people who have volunteered and worked for the Royal
Voluntary Service and make them accessible in a number of ways and introduce
new volunteers known as heritage champions to Royal Voluntary Service and oral
history. Throughout the project I don’t think we ever explained on the Heritage
Bulletin Blog what oral history was and how it shapes archives and archivists.
What is Oral history?
The basic definition of oral history is that it is the collection
of memories and personal commentaries of historical significance through
recorded interviews. However this includes many elements including preparation
of interview questions, building an interviewer and interviewee relationship,
recording the interview, archiving it, cataloguing, writing transcriptions,
making it accessible and interpreting the information for other to use. In
essence there is a whole project behind the words oral history.
How is an archive based
oral history project run?
Talking from experience oral history projects based in
archives is not just the collection and archiving of the interviews it is much
more than that. Voices of Volunteering: 75 years of citizenship and service was
a pioneering oral history project bringing the voices of WVS, WRVS and Royal
Voluntary Service volunteers to life. Generously funded by the Heritage Lottery
Fund, over two years Royal Voluntary Service professionally gathered 80 oral
histories from past and present volunteers from every part of Great Britain;
stories told in their own voices and own words, of their contribution to the
largest voluntary organisation in British history. Run by the Project Archivist
this also involved training and collection of oral histories by volunteers
called heritage champions, cataloguing and preserving oral histories, creating
school resources and holding an end of project event in Devizes. You can find
out more about the project here.
Archivists and oral
In the past oral history would have been the preserve of the
historian choosing who to interview for a specific research project and later
depositing those interviews in an archive somewhere where they might be
catalogued in the future. Today with the growing trend of archivists expanding
their role in the heritage and information world many archives are taking on
their own projects. Many of these archives seem to represent those whose
histories are usually hidden or underrepresented in the public domain or to
fill in gaps in the history of an organisation or to save current knowledge before
it disappears forever.
While Jenkinson said that archives were not “collected” but “came together and reached their final arrangement by a natural process”. Schellenberg argued that the modern archivist “had a definite need to redefine archives in a manner more suited to his own requirements”. Schellenburg emphasised the historical relevance of keeping records, perhaps after the time of these two pioneers archivists have moved on to develop this aspect. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for archives in increasing access to archives and providing innovative outreach projects to take on the role of a historian or work on a project with one to create archives for their repository. It’s all part of the merge of the many roles in the heritage and history industry.
Oral history is just one of the many projects where archivists roles are expanded and their skill sets changed. This isn’t just in the collection of oral history and learning interview skills but also back in the more traditional role as preserver. Over the years sound has been recorded in many formats; archivists used to focus on preserving a physical format such as vinyl or cassette tape but now along with more “traditional” born digital archives oral history has moved on to the digital plying field and archivists must learn to preserve, migrate and make accessible these formats such as WAV and MP3. It’s an ever changing world which archivists must stay ahead of and oral history has had an effect on.
Oral history is not just a recorded interview it is a recorded interview with an entire project behind it archiving, making accessible and interpreting that recording. The project is run with many elements including heritage, community, education and preservation. They are planned out and celebrated as well as being funded either internally or externally. No longer just the preserve of historians they have developed into a trustworthy and reliable source of expanding our knowledge of historical events. Oral history is never simple it’s a complex and has many layers to it which is helping to develop the role of an archivist in the modern world.