How do you decide what to keep?

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Some years ago, several archivists joked that the selection of records was comparable to a grab bag: simply toss in administrative and legal needs, add a bit of historical significance along with some ambiguous “characteristics of records,” shake vigorously, and voilà! The archivist is left with a perfect sense of the value of records.

Thankfully, such is not the case.  But record retention and archival selection can still feel a bit like hocus-pocus.

For the non-practitioner, then, it may be surprising to know that archivists have an established framework on which to hang selection decisions.  I will refrain from embarking on a soporific exegesis of archive’s appraisal theory and simply note that many of these selection principles are tied together by two equally essential factors.

The first factor focuses on physical concerns such as the amount of space needed and both the aggregate and individual preservation needs of the records.  These aspects are often greatly affected by funding.

The second factor focuses on intellectual concerns about the quality of the information contained in the record and its relationship to the collecting scope of the archive.  Archivists, for instance, consider the circumstances in which records were created, the level and amount of detail contained, the time span covered, and whether the information is duplicated elsewhere.

Government records, which focus on protecting the rights of the citizens and holding state agencies accountable, contrast with manuscript collections, which evaluate records on similar values.  The essential purpose of the records and their impact on users are equally important for the manuscript curator, but a curator might also ask how the records fit into research trends and how they will be used. What sort of access restrictions might need to be imposed? Or what sort of special needs will the repository need to provide for? (For instance, will the collection need costly or time-intensive reformatting?  Does the collection contain potentially hazardous materials like nitrate negatives?)

Archivists and manuscript curators ask these questions because they are fundamentally cautious people, acutely aware that today’s decisions will affect tomorrow’s documentary evidence, and as a result, their assessment of records are far from capricious or narrow-minded.  In fact, today’s archivists and manuscript curators are trained to identify archivally significant record groups and collecting areas as records are being created, thereby ensuring that records and manuscripts are not left to the chances of time.

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